I don’t mean to sound boastful, but when it comes to my problems, nobody knows them better than I do. How insidious they are, how resistant to resolution—I am the expert when it comes to these things, to All Things Wrong in my world.
At least that is how I have been operating—unconsciously, mind you—until I underwent eye surgery during my son’s recent spring break.
For the last few years, I have been struggling with a recurring condition in which the surface of my right cornea kept forming irregularities and erosions rather than laying flat like smooth glass. Any time this happened I would suddenly be gripped by excruciating pain, as each blink or movement of my eye felt like being stabbed by a sharp object. I also ran the risk of infection if the damage was extensive (no one should walk around with an open eye wound). What followed were multiple trips to the specialist over successive days and the application of medication both topical and oral. While I am so grateful for the intervention I received, my eye problems basically took over my life every time they reared their viperous little heads.
Sometimes, I would go for weeks, even months, without an incident. I’d be lulled into thinking that perhaps my troubles were behind me. Perhaps the medications I’d worked into my daily routine were enough. Perhaps the ridiculous sleep goggles I used to keep my eye moist at night were doing the trick. Perhaps there really was a way to earn grace in this impossible situation, so that I could be saved from the punishment my diagnosis had imposed.
No such luck.
Just as we were turning the corner into spring, I woke up in the wee hours in all-too-familiar agony. Despite my best efforts, the surface of my cornea had devolved into a misshapen, torturous thing again. Both my doctor and I agreed, it was time to operate. The most pressing question was: when? Ideally, the procedure would have to be timed so that my husband could care for our special needs son and myself—a burden my mom and our babysitter couldn’t bear by themselves, willing as they might be.
Sitting in the darkened exam room, surrounded by high-tech ocular equipment, I dared ask the unthinkable of my specialist: could we do it next week, when my husband had taken time off for spring break anyway?
Seldom have I been bowled over by few words, but my doctor’s simple “yes” blew me away. After seeing surgery as a faraway star for so long, it fell into my immediate orbit, lighting my way over the next few days in preparation. And one of the first instructions I received began to loosen my ironclad belief that I knew my embattled self best.
The doctor prescribed special drops for postoperative recovery—special because they were derived from my very own blood! A phlebotomist extracted several vials from my arms, which a “compounding pharmacy” then formulated into a serum far superior to anything synthetic I might obtain. During all my years of suffering, a restorative agent had been coursing through my veins, just beneath my skin. Close enough to me to be me. God had provided a means to healing so intimate that it thoroughly shocked me.
Maybe I didn’t know everything there was to know about fixing a broken me. The only way I could wrap my head around this mystery was to remember how my body produced amniotic fluid during pregnancy—the perfect medium in which my baby could develop. All made from “scratch,” so to speak, without my conscious input. All according to an outside Creator’s design, not my own.
It turns out the serum wasn’t the only surprise to expose flaws in my self-understanding. My doctor revealed another after the surgery. When he began to operate, he discovered that the damage on my cornea exceeded the trouble spot he had treated before. Rather, it covered my whole eye, so that he could easily swab away the entire epithelial layer without having to use sharper instruments to achieve “global” smoothness. In other words, his job was made easier by the extensiveness of my disease. And if he had not intervened so quickly, and by this particular method, my next episode of erosion would have ambushed me soon.
Upon learning this, I imagined Jesus looking at his divine calendar, upon which was mapped out my next eye disaster (and every subsequent incident, for that matter). I watched him pen me into the perfect time slot to get the help I needed. To spare me any more pain in this besieged area of my life. To ensure my well being, no matter the level of my awareness of him. Just as I would do for my son, whose autism prevents him from comprehending the extent of my efforts on his behalf—efforts I make because I love him with all that I am.
I’ve often wondered what was on Jesus’s mind when he “penned” my son into my husband’s life and mine. The appearance of special needs in your child will do that—make you ask why such a long-term, all consuming challenge has been introduced into your journey, when most others do not seem to bear such a burden. My guess is that there are a myriad of reasons that God did what He did, but the one that stands out most for me is this: He knew we would never give up, no matter how grueling the marathon. That we would keep showing up at the track every day, ready to run whatever distance was required for the boy we love so fiercely, the boy who runs his own race to overcome the significant obstacles set before him.
The older I get the more I am convinced that the number one way God moves in the world is through people. It’s a tricky dance, trying to unravel this mystery, because people really do make up their own minds to show up for another person—the way my specialist did for me during spring break. And yet when I look out over the horizon of human narrative, I cannot help but see individual paths being shaped by an invisible hand. This hand is invested with enough power to force an agenda but instead works through a weaver’s loom rather than a builder’s hammer. Another way to say it is that God lets his hens lay of their own accord already knowing what to cook up with all those eggs.
The Hebrew Bible contains a long poem devoted to the discrepancy between what we human beings experience within our limited plane of existence and what God does as an infinite being. About midway through the poem, the psalmist describes an emotion inherent to our humanity: terror at being overcome by forces we can neither discern nor defeat:
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
And the light about me be night.”
(Psalm 139:11, ESV)
According to the psalmist, however, the Creator suffers no such distress from His vantage point:
Even the darkness is not dark to You;
The night is bright as the day,
For darkness is as light with You
(Psalm 139:12 ESV)
The next verses further delineate the reason for divine ease in either state, night or day:
For You formed my inward parts;
You knitted me together in my mother’s womb
Wonderful are Your works;
My soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from You,
When I was being made in secret,
Intricately woven in the depths of the earth
(Psalm 139:13-15, ESV)
Unlike my husband and I, who brought our son into this world but cannot dictate what happens to him (or us) in it, the Creator exercises complete control over His creation. Even before the psalmist entered the world, his Maker was already weaving him together in his mother’s womb. “And I had as little to do with His creative decisions,” the psalmist seems to say, “as if I were buried deep in the ground—far away from anyone’s input.”
Having confessed that he can hardly take credit for the miraculousness of his own making, the psalmist goes one step further.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
In your book were written, every one of them,
The days that were formed for me,
When as yet there were none of them.
(Psalm 139:16, ESV)
Having lauded God for the “what” of who He is, the psalmist now praises Him for the “when” of who He is, using language reminiscent of the Genesis 1 story. Just as He did there, the Creator continues to order His creative activity over a course of days. Where others might have looked at the very beginning of the psalmist’s existence and glimpsed nothing, the Creator sees the whole story, beginning to end. He and He alone can claim perfect knowledge over the psalmist’s life: his person and his path. The gap between Creator and creature stretches unfathomably wide, and it is this very distance in which the poet takes comfort. He’s not the expert when it comes to himself. He doesn’t have to be.
In retrospect, one last incident with my eye specialist drew me closer to comprehending the limits of my self-awareness. As I waited in the exam room for my doctor to appear, his assistant asked if I would like to see a video of their recent trip to Uganda, in which they were able to offer free medical services for those with eye problems there. One of their patients in particular caught my attention: a six year old boy with cataracts who had gone completely blind. With help from my doctor’s medical team, his vision was restored, and the child was given back his life. As he commented on the “white people” he saw around him and counted the chairs in the waiting area, I nearly started bawling. I felt, as the medical team in the video seemed to, that these eye interventions were connecting both givers and receivers to something so much bigger than themselves. Something good, something enduring, something sacred.
We so often feel outsized by our problems. When we get help for them in ways that make us feel blessedly small in comparison to whatever entity is championing us, we should note the rarity and value of such encounters. We should tuck these jewels away in our hearts, ready to pull them out for reexamination whenever we start getting cynical or despairing about escaping our hurts. We should ask for support from those around us, grasping that such requests can serve as prayer to a Creator who chooses people as His favorite intermediaries.
And, if we dare, we might consider imitating the poet of Psalm 139, who opens his poem with a declaration of his Maker’s unique knowledge of him—
O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
You discern my thoughts from afar.
—then closes his masterpiece with the same affirmation, now expressed as petition:
Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me, and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
And lead me in the way everlasting
Even after I am done using up all the serum, I believe I will keep at least one little bottle as a memento of when I witnessed heaven meeting earth in my life, and I was blessedly reduced to a mere speck of myself. When I relaxed and fell back into arms—both human and divine—that were strong and wise enough to sustain me. Perhaps remembering this time will make me brave enough to approach God with what I really need and want—you know, the equivalent of surgery next week. After what happened over spring break, I have changed quite dramatically now that I can see. I hope this transformation sticks, just as I hope every day brings a boy in Africa new sights to enrich his life.