I used to hate birthdays as they were the one day that I had to admit I have a father who is far from the one who art in heaven. I used to hate birthdays because no matter how many people wished me happiness such happiness always managed to escape me. I used to hate birthdays because I could not avoid the person I least like being around; me. I no longer hate birthdays because I no longer choose to be defined by my paternity or my depression. I no longer hate spending time with me. It was my birthday this week. I’m 40. And this year I enjoyed a road trip with the wife courtesy of my mother. I was roasted by the Jew, his wife, and a gaggle of gentiles. I had an epic dinner with my Mom. I even got cards on the day from the wife and kid. And I had an epiphany about how far I have come. It has been two years since I went on disability and I started back to work this week. Epiphanies happen in the damnedest places; mine was while having a TB test. (Nothing causes epiphanies quite like preventative care for airborne diseases.) As the nurse looks over my paperwork, she notes that it is my birthday. Sparkling, as it’s the best word to describe her voice, she says, “Happy Birthday.” I volunteered, “I’m glad to still be having them.” “OK?” she says with a puzzled look. Without a pause I add, “There were times where I did everything I could to stop having them. Three times. Three times in the hospital. Twice here. But, I’m here today and I’m a chaplain.” And with less pause and more sparkle, she shouts, “You’re going to do great things here. I just know it. G-d is Good.”
Ovid said, “be patient and tough; someday this pain will be useful to you.” I agree, but the journey to my agreeing with Ovid was seldom easy. I don’t think it is for anyone. I don’t think anyone comes to say so does so without a wince. And I don’t say it to give some purpose behind my suffering. Some suffering is not redemptive. Some crosses are just for crucifixion. But it is my choice, even if was not easily made, to see my nail scars as blessings. And the only way my scars become blessings is when we I use them to save another from hanging any longer on their cross.
In the play “The Angel that Troubled the Waters” Thornton Wilder uses the story of the Pool at Bethesda (John 5: 1-14) where a lame man, revealed to be a physician, periodically comes to the pool hoping to be the first in the water when an angel appears and stirs it. The physician wants to be healed of his depression. But the angel appears and prevents him from entering the water.
Angel: “Draw back, physician, this moment is not for you.”
Physician: “Angelic visitor, I pray thee, listen to my prayer.
Angel: “Healing is not for you.”
Physician: “Surely, surely, the angels are wise. Surely, O Prince, you are not deceived by my apparent wholeness. Your eyes can see the nets in which my wings are caught; the sin into which all my endeavors sink half-performed cannot be concealed from you.”
Angel: “I know.”
There is an interlude.
Physician: “Oh, in such an hour was I born, and doubly fearful to me is the flaw in my heart. Must I drag my shame, Prince and Singer, all my days more bowed than my neighbor?”
Angel: “Without your wound where would your power be? It is your very sadness that makes your low voice tremble into the hearts of men. The very angels themselves cannot persuade the wretched and blundering children on earth as can one human being broken on the wheels of living. In Love’s service only the wounded soldiers can serve. Draw back.”
Later, another person enters the pool first and is healed. He rejoices in his good fortune then turns to the physician before leaving and says:
“But come with me first, an hour only, to my home. My son is lost in dark thoughts. I — I do not understand him, and only you have ever lifted his mood. Only an hour . . . my daughter, since her child has died, sits in the shadow. She will not listen to us but she will listen to you.”
Birthdays are blessings, even if it takes 40 of them to realize it. May my birthdays help someone else arrive where I am now but in far fewer years.