Dealing With Turbulence on The River of Life

We all face troubles in life, but an idea I call the “River of Life” is immensely worthwhile when trouble gets big. Perhaps you’ll find the concept worthwhile, too. It occurred to me as I lay in bed shortly after our latest trial appeared out of nowhere . . .

At 9am on May 22, 2024, one day after we put our beloved 2 year old dog Daisy down, my wife, Mary, got a call from our local medical clinic.

“The doctor wants you to come in today at 2pm for a talk. And be sure to bring Steve. If you can’t make it, let us know right away so we can get you in here as soon as possible.”

Life Can Change Quickly

It normally takes 4 to 6 weeks to get into this clinic for a regular appointment, so having the office call us, with a firm request to have a “talk” in five hours, seemed significant. Sitting in the doctor’s examining room things quickly took on the aire of a bad dream.

“You have a growth at the top of your spine, Mary. It’s large and worrisome.  We don’t know what it is yet, but your latest MRI shows that it has eaten away a significant portion of the second vertebrae from the top. Your neck is very fragile and could break at any time. If it does, you’ll either die immediately or spend the rest of your life in a wheelchair. You need to see specialists.”

The growth turned out to be a rare form of cancer called chordoma. It starts in the skull or backbone. When each of us was growing in our mother’s womb, specialized cells were at work as our spine formed. These cells are supposed to disappear shortly before or after birth. In the rare cases when they don’t disappear, chordoma can result. It’s literally a 1 in a million condition.

As you’d imagine, this turn of events has completely changed life for Mary and our family. I’ve been sitting beside Mary in her big city hospital bed 12 hours a day for a couple of weeks now, but this is where the idea of the River of Life has been especially helpful.

To Swim or Not to Swim

Imagine life as a river and you’re floating in it. The current is slow and barely perceptible. You can tell you’re moving only because different trees come into view, but the movement seems almost insignificant. You can swim easily anywhere you like, checking out one bank of the river or the other. Perhaps you swim over to an interesting log floating nearby to see how close you can get to a turtle sunning itself. Life is easy and it’s good.

But then the current gets a bit stronger. You can still swim, but it’s not easy any more. In time, the current gets even stronger. The water is starting to make noise now as it flows faster. With hardly any warning, the river turns into white water. The current is strong and you feel panic clawing its way into your mind as you lose control while moving much faster. You don’t care about trees any more. “Swim harder!”, you think to yourself. “Swim harder!” It’s at times like this that the River of Life idea helps.

Your River of Life

The thing about life and rivers is that they’re both stronger than we are. Much stronger. This is easy to forget when life is smooth, and you appear to be the captain of your own ship in a slow, friendly river, with the power to do what you want when you want. But eventually, and for everyone in unique ways, there will be times of turbulence. And sometimes this turbulence is much, much stronger than we are.

In the same way that it would be futile and counter-productive to swim hard and struggle against the current of a rushing, foaming physical river, it’s also futile and counter-productive to struggle against the white waters of life when you find yourself in them. Sure, you can try to over-power harsh realities, but will it do any good? No. I’d argue that it makes things worse.

When your life is tossed by fast-flowing rapids, my advice is to just lie there and let the white water of trouble take you where it will. There really isn’t much choice in the matter, so what’s the point in struggling, becoming hopelessly tired, and ultimately making things more difficult? You’ll go through the rapids of life whether you want to or not. You may get dashed to smithereens against a boulder, you may get hopelessly hung up on some branches or weeds and drown, or you may make it through the rapids and come out to calm water again on the other side, and back to being able to swim and appreciate the passing trees (at least until the next time things get rough).

In both physical rivers and the river of life, you need to know when swimming makes sense and when it definitely does not make sense. But how do you know which is which?

Calculated Surrender

I’m not suggesting that you do nothing when the turbulent waters of life surround you. What I am suggesting is that “going with the flow” is sometimes the best way to live at times like these. In the case of Mary, we’ve pursued options and entrusted her care to the best people we can find. Two big and risky operations have happened, totalling 10 hours under the knife. There’s also a stomach tube, a hole in her throat for breathing, IV lines, monitors, a catheter, specialists, pain, and varying amounts of fragile hope that comes and goes. All in all, things look good for Mary, though this kind of success doesn’t yet feel terribly successful as it’s happening.

There’s a process unfolding and I’ve let myself go limp emotionally, letting the roaring river take me where it will, knowing that we are definitely not the captains of our own ship at times like these. My greatest concern is the suffering Mary is going through, but I can honestly say I don’t have anxiety or fear. As far as I can tell, this kind of peace is not something that comes naturally to most people at times like this, which leads to a question. “How to make it through such things without panic and anxiety?”

Surrendering Well

Living as my family and I are right now, in the white water rapids of life,  a kind of surrender is most helpful indeed. We’ve done all we can, and top medical people are doing all they can. In practice there are actually multiple surrenders involved in here – surrender to the mortality of our bodies; the mortality of family ties; the mortality of a marriage, the inevitable mortality of health and personal freedoms. But there’s something else that’s happened in our case, and it has surprised me.

Spending lots of time in a hospital ward, and this one includes an intensive care wing and multiple traumas coming in every day by helicopter and ambulance, I find myself surrounded by other people and families who are also in their own white water rapids. Introductions are easy. Just ask this question: “What are you at the hospital for?”

Do this and complete strangers open up. They share their stories, offer their own support to you, shed a few tears, visit you in your room, all while new friendships are forming.

Some of these people are in much more turbulent waters than we are, some have been in the rapids for months. Some have no hope for full recovery. Human connections at time like this definitely help, but there’s something else that’s proven more valuable to me.

Trust and Faith

The ability to surrender ultimately comes down to trust and faith. Not trust and faith that everything will necessarily turn out well for Mary in the sense of healing. That’s what we hope and pray for, and that looks like what’s happening now. But the river of life flows where it will. I have no control. My trust and faith are in a God who has proven his existence and love to me personally in multiple, undeniable ways over the decades. The things I’ve seen, the experiences I’ve had, and the facts I’ve discovered are the foundation of my trust and faith in someone bigger than I am, someone who also has our eternal best interests in mind. Knowing what I do, I simply don’t have enough faith to be an atheist. This is not the perspective of everyone, I know, but I’ve noticed something.

Those I meet who believe that all of reality is only what we see, touch and measure, almost universally have never closely examined the case for a creator. It’s almost like there’s a built-in animosity: “There is no God and I hate him.” I don’t know what to make of this, except two things.

First, some very staunch atheists have set out to disprove the existence of God, yet had their minds changed completely after examining the biological, cosmological, mathematical and historical evidence for the existence of an intelligent designer. Few people actually do this, but when they do perspectives often change. And second, in my experience, no one comes to believe in an intelligent designer unless he makes himself known. Why this happens for some people and not for others, I have no idea.

Tooth Fairy Faith?

Could I be wrong to put my trust and faith in the “tooth fairy”, no matter what happens? Am I just fooling myself? Some people think so, and I understand that. But let’s say a God of love, justice, creativity, meaning and beauty is imaginary, and let’s say this has been proven to me undeniably.  Even if I believed that chance and accident are really the only thing behind the entire universe, I’d still find a trust-and-faith perspective a better worldview to live by.

And why not? What could be better as we cascade down the foaming, frothing white water seasons on the River of Life, than knowing that ?