Sunday, July 13, 2008

A Word About Weakness

as·the·ni·a (ās-thē'nē-ə) n. Loss or lack of bodily strength; weakness; debility.

Recently I had to complete paperwork to qualify for disability benefits – I never envisioned being at the other end of that process! When asked what about my condition prevented me from being able to work, I wrote down “weight loss, fatigue, asthenia”. Not currently in any significant pain, the predominant debilitating symptoms are these. No longer am I able to breeze through 12-hour days, mostly on my feet, and certainly not on any sustained basis. Loathe to admit it, I am too weak. I lack the sustained physical energy, muscle and mental stamina, to manage the longitudinal care of hundreds of patients as I once did.

As I have tried to share with you lessons learned during this journey with cancer, the one lesson I have yet to learn is how to accommodate my own weakness. Perhaps it is because I have almost always had more than my share of energy. “Blessed” for years with subclinical hyperthyroidism, my metabolism was in hyper-drive. Even after treatment for the thyroid condition, I required higher-than-average doses of synthetic thyroid medication, which seemed to keep me revved up, getting by with less than six hours of sleep, running circles around my wife, and driving her crazy with my ability to eat most anything without gaining weight.

Perhaps my difficulty adjusting to this new reality of weakness is my tendency to equate weakness with a defect in character or will. Of course I know better, but I have always operated on the semi-conscious notion that if you simply “buck-up”, you can overcome most any obstacle. Ask any one of my daughters how their doctor-daddy responded when they wanted to stay home from school because they did not feel well or it was “that time of month”.

And, although I am reluctant to admit it, part of my difficulty with weakness is that my self-esteem is linked to an achievement-oriented mentality and the desire to "be strong" for my woman whatever the circumstance. After all, she is the weaker vessel, right? Like it or not, I have a hard time shaking off these deeply ingrained patterns of thinking. I may yet need to learn (like a friend recently observed) how to become a human being (as opposed to a human doing).

Now I am confronted with a condition in which both the disease and the treatment rob me of energy; and no amount of self-will, positive thinking, or even sincere faith seem capable of restoring. This last course of high-dose Interleukin-2 zapped me of energy like I have never experienced before – just getting up from a chair or climbing a flight of stairs required enormous effort. Only now am I able to stay upright most of the day.

I know intellectually that there are lessons to learn through this experience of sustained weakness but I have yet to embrace them fully. The apostle Paul was apparently well tutored by weakness as he related to the Corinthian church his struggle with a “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7-10). Beset with some chronic malady he was told by the Lord that he would not be rid of this condition, but rather “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.

Power is perfected in weakness… Hmm, how does that work? Apparently that is what I must yet learn. What is the nature of this power? It certainly is not physical. No Olympic athlete cultivated weakness in order to achieve greater strength or stamina. It must be spiritual power, or as Paul puts it, “the power of Christ”. I must yet learn what that means experientially – this is not something to be comprehended through mental gymnastics. I suspect people like Joni Eareckson Tada and Dick Woodward know a bit about power perfected in weakness.

One thing I have learned: that is to be satisfied with uncertainty. In a conversation with my Dad the other day, he asked “When will you know you have been cured?” My short answer: “Never.” From a medical standpoint, I know the physicians will never declare me “cured”, even if no evidence of active cancer can be found. Rather, knowing that not every renegade melanoma cell can possibly be accounted for by any existing scan or test, they will declare me “in remission.”

And that is okay with me, for in this state of uncertainty (vulnerability, weakness), I am totally dependent on Him as my source of peace, hope and strength. That is where I belong. That is where I will stay. And one day I will be able to say with Paul: "Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me."

Still learning and loving each day He gives,



  1. It is sometimes in our most fervent strivings that the Lord relieves us of the business we are about. We are so busy doing and being on our own that we forget that it is not our strength we depend on and that all our efforts are futility without His hand guiding our doings. It is those who are most arduously at His work that He often calls to take a moment in His time to rest in His grace and mercy to remind us that He is near, ever present, and faithful. We don't always hear Him the first few times He calls and sometimes it takes a good thump on the head for Him to entertain our attention. I encourage you in what you term as your weakness to enjoy the absolute peace your mind can know in just abiding in His rest. Perhaps He is calling you to hand it all over and let Him care for it while He also cares for you. It is an amazing thing to be under His absolute attention while He ministers to the places in our heart that we had long neglected. He is a tender and attentive physician to all of our "weaknesses". We are greatly in prayer for you and Linda.

  2. It was soo good too see you at church yesterday. I told Christianne when I saw you a few weeks ago how amazing it was to see you worship during the songs and how the words to the songs we were singing must have such a deeper meaning for you ... sort of having gone from the doorstep of heaven and back to earth again.

    I can identify with the "get going", active drive as well. I don't have the thyroid issue, just blessed with lots of energy (that now my 4 year old has). :) Anyway, I also struggle with the idea that people are valuable for who they are and not for what they do. The work ethic in my Texas roots is very important, but not as important as enjoying and loving everyone for who they are. I feel like I am just learning this lesson as well.

    As far as faith, I was sort of intrigued by your answer to my suggestion about teaching a SS class on faith when you were able ... you said something along the lines of, "you have to experience it to have it." (maybe you can correct me if I got it wrong). But it got me thinking that all my preparation for Will's impending (doomish) deployment will not fully prepare me for the faith God will grant me DURING the process. Another frustration for a worker bee like myself ... the old adage that God usually gives us what we need WHEN we need it, and not a moment too soon.

    You and Linda are in our prayers. Thanks for the lessons.
    Leigh Rimmer

  3. Dan--hi, it's Keith Berger--how are you? I finally found someone who knew the site of your blog. I have been thinking of you a lot!

  4. I am in tears as the "thorn" verses have been with me these past few days. I am in the same situation and am pleading with God to remove it. However, I am also attempting to be content with uncertainty, that God may have to continue to teach me about His perfected power in my weakness. As much as I hate it, I am learning to let go and accept what I'm given today. I understand in my own way.

    Continuing Prayers,
    Kristen (Hawley) Stapp

  5. Dear Dr. Dan
    I have been reading your blog ever since your brother Don told me about it. Don and I used to work together in SHAPE and were able to stay close over the years.I just want you to know that I am praying for you and your family, Don and his and of cause for your dad as well!!! You are a remarkable man and your faith and spirit is inspiring! I pray that God will be with you every step of the way!!!
    Please say Hi to Don for me!!!
    Yours truly,
    Tina Dwyer, El Paso,TX