You Can’t, Can’t Do Anything, Anything

The Illness We All Suffer From

Charlotte Getz / 5.12.21

My favorite time to listen to music is in the car by myself. At least once a day I invent an errand, or drive to a Starbucks that is unnecessarily far away, just so I can blast my tunes in peace, to quiet and recharge my often frenzied mind. Lately, one of my repeat power ballads has been Sia’s haunting anthem, “Angel by the Wings.” Reader, I challenge you to play this song in your car at max volume and not have a bodily response, whether a small rhythmic head nod or a Breakfast Club fist pump, and not to feel a surge of supernatural inspiration as the chorus pounds straight through your chest:

You can, can do anything, anything, you can — do anything.

I’m not saying I’m personally inclined to sing into my cell phone and perform interpretive dance in the driver’s seat like some kind of madcap thespian in a black box theater — but I’m not not saying that either.

This chorus is too intoxicating not to entertain. Even in the winter, windows down and without giving my frigid fingers much of a thought, I find myself nearly euphoric, feeling like I really can — do anything, that is. For the length of time I’m willing to play the song on repeat, I can sometimes forget entirely about my very real shackles that make that glorious notion so absolutely impossible.

Oh, so, your wounds they show.

In the chronic illness world, I have what’s referred to as an “invisible disease.” I’m a “spoonie” (if you know, you know). This means that I walk around living my life and am often mistaken for someone who’s fine, someone who really could do just about anything. Beneath the rosy surface of that charming exterior is relentless physical pain in my fingers, wrists, neck, ankles, and jaw. Reader, as I type this now I have an ice pack strapped around my neck, and I cannot chew food without holding the joint of my left jaw in place. It’s a strange sight, and because we’re in a pandemic you wouldn’t know any of this unless you lived with me. What you can’t see behind my smile and good humor is that even on a good day, I am rarely without a low-grade fever, and God forbid I catch an actual cold; my body typically responds to the most minor stress and illness by spiraling into a hideous vortex of chaos for weeks and months at a time, usually ending with a round of steroids (which comes with its own set of awful side effects). There is insomnia, depression, panic attacks, debilitating brain fog, and back-to-back urinary tract infections. As you can imagine, the real me is a peach to be around. Send my husband your thoughts and prayers and #goodvibesonly.

For about seven years now, I’ve been butting heads with my chronic illnesses, these antagonists that are always with me: Systemic Lupus Erythematosus and Sjogren’s Syndrome (plus a slew of other “immuno-abnormalities”). One of these wears a mask and the other has horns. I make inspired and intelligent plans at night, and in the morning, I am foiled by ankles that won’t bend or a brain so out-to-lunch I can hardly form a single coherent thought.

The fact of the matter is, it infuriates me to no end, all of the things that I literally cannot do, but for God’s mercy.

Sia continues:

Hold on, head up, be strong
Oh hold on, hold on
Until you hear someone come
Here they come.

O Lord. This is the prayer that forms on my lips before the coffee is even brewed. These two words pour forth as easy as breathing, and they cover all manner of woes — from a tantruming child, to eyelids that need clothespins just to stay open. Next is something like, Be with me, Jesus. Carry me through. In response he has showed up over and again as a distinct and tangible with-ness: a friend who I can promise you is real, is here, and is my most cherished by a mile. He has drawn so very close to me in this suffering. He has matched the relentlessness of my illness [think: body being dragged behind a monster truck] with a relentlessness all his own. And although it’s hard to explain with any amount of precision, I rarely feel inclined to pray for full restoration. At least for now, God’s friendship and nearness seem to be more curing to me than a flourishing immune system. Instead of a singular miracle of physical healing, I get to see God’s low-key miraculous rescue on a nearly hourly basis. I need him to wrench me out from under the covers each morning, to whisper encouragement in my ear as I make my kids’ PB&Js, to coax me into the shower for my bi-weekly shampoo, to stroll with me on the treadmill, and to function through me in the details of my work. I can’t do anything to help myself. Which is awful. And yet — and yet — I’m learning, I can do all things.

Jesus has promised to be our strength in weakness: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). And although in my case he has fulfilled that promise in every way, it rarely looks glamorous. When the rubber meets the road, there’s just no sugar-coating weakness. I have spent much of the last ten years begging God to make me more productive, energetic, successful, focused, strong, and purposeful. But equipped with a body that just wants to quit most days, I’ve wrestled with him, like Jacob does, down to the tips of my callused fingers.

Take an angel by the wings
Beg her now for anything

“I will not let you go until you bless me,” says Jacob. And he prevails against the angel, but not without a limp that would stay with him the remainder of his life. We all likewise walk this world with a hobble. But because of Jesus, we also walk as the greatest of paradoxes: we are not just mortally wounded, but eternally victorious, eternally healed. With grace, our physical and spiritual brokenness can be unlikely Ebenezer stones, like the scars on Christ’s own hands, reminders of his faithfulness toward us to the end. Opposite to Sia’s anthem, I am helpless, we are helpless. Not just us spoonies, we all walk around like everything’s fine; we post our pictures and go about our days, all the while plagued by an invisible disease. Things are not as they should be. Sin, death, pain, suffering — we can’t do anything. Don’t you feel that every single day, and maybe especially even on Wednesdays? And yet,  and yet, I look back in my journals at the objective plot-points of my life, and somehow things happened: decisions were made, trials were endured, joy sprung forth like a sudden bud through craggy and infertile soil. God showed up, over and over again, and he gave more grace (Jas 4:6).

I am still coming to terms with doing and accomplishing so much less than I’d like to, even though it is infinitely more than I should be able to. Like so many of us, the last year has cut me off from almost every arena where I tend to find personal value and justification. I’ve had no other place to look but the cross for my portion. When I have rested in the chronic-ness of my suffering, when I have leaned into that death, God has reminded me where real resurrection happens: a tomb. Resurrection in my life involves more time shrouded in bed than athletic, social, or career prowess. And I’m learning to trust that God works in and through our painful and idling and middle-of-nowhere places, as much as (if not more so than) in the hits and grand slams.

Maybe with the same euphoria that comes with the thought and pursuit of endless power (or things like bio-hacking), we can praise the opposite in ourselves — we can dance like weirdos and pound the steering wheel at our powerless fragility. Because in the place of that grievous lack and limitation is a far better abundance. God never promises that we can do anything in our own strength. In fact, he is pretty much constantly reminding us of how needy and ridiculous and pitiful we are. The promise available to us is always his own abiding strength, ability, and sufficiency — his otherworldly with-ness as we stagger through this awful wilderness. And every now and again, he blessedly pulls back the curtain and shows us what’s in store.

We can’t, can’t do anything, anything, but we are not without hope.