Interfaith Cooperation Brings Health and Hope

Interfaith Health and Hope Coalition conference in Detroit

PHOTOS (From Top): Two scenes from the one-day conference sponsored by the Interfaith Health and Hope Coalition. Then, the Rev. TIMOTHY AHRENS, pastor of First Congregational Church, a United Church of Christ congregation in Columbus, Ohio; KELLY HERRON, executive director of Cabrini Clinic in Detroit; MELISSA DaSILVA, director of operations for Advantage Health Centers; MARCELLA WILSON, president of MATRIX Human Services; RENEE BRANCH CANADY, chief executive of the Michigan Public Health Institute; the Rev. Dr. URIAS BEVERLY, director of the doctor of ministry and the Muslim chaplaincy programs at the Ecumenical Theological Seminary; and TOM WATKINS, president of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority. PHOTOS by Joe Grimm of the Michigan State University School of Journalism.

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine

Religious and health-care leaders gathered in Detroit for a one-day conference to discuss collaborating more closely as they serve needy families. As Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine, I was at the heart of that gathering as moderator for the conference’s lineup of speakers.

That’s where our publishing house wants to be: connecting men and women with diverse religious and health-giving resources. Why? Because, as ReadTheSpirit expands to publish many new kinds of books, our core mission remains: publishing information that builds healthy communities.

In this column, I will tell you more about the inspiring conference in Detroit, but first—you’re also sure to be inspired by these resources …

WHAT HAPPENED
AT THE DETROIT CONFERENCE?

The annual one-day conference was hosted by Michigan’s Interfaith Health and Hope Coalition. The coalition involves many groups, but it’s 2014 gathering was chiefly sponsored by the St. John Providence Health System. Dr. Cynthia Taueg represented St. John, which has a long history of promoting Faith & Community Nursing and St. John also is part of an innovative Healthy Neighborhoods program in Detroit.

Addressing the crowd, Dr. Taueg said improving neighborhoods begins with improving individual lives: “We understand that you can’t have healthy communities without healthy people.”

As a lifelong Detroiter, Dr. Taueg said, “We’re at a crossroads in Detroit. By the time I finally transition from this life, I want people to say: Oh, you’re talking about Detroit? I know that’s one of the healthiest places in America to live.”

To achieve such a grand goal, Dr. Taueg said, health systems must work with faith communities. Throughout the day, Jewish, Christian and Muslim clergy talked with the crowd about the importance of promoting expanded health-care coverage and getting congregations more involved in caregiving partnerships, overall. Also, Taueg was joined by leaders from other health-care programs who talked to the crowd about current challenges in meeting their larger goals.

The Rev. Timothy Ahrens, pastor of First Congregational Church, a United Church of Christ congregation in Columbus, Ohio, talked about his own public campaign for expanded health coverage in Ohio.

Faith leaders must play a role, he urged. “You represent hope. Your imaginative faith brings hope alive. Your brain and spirit—wired to hope—allow others to grab hold when the waters of despair are sweeping over them.”

Kelly Herron, executive director of Cabrini Clinic in Detroit—known nationwide as America’s oldest free clinic—said that religious groups need to continue supporting free clinics. Even as medical coverage expands nationwide, many men, women and children will continue to need help.

“We’re the safety net for the safety net,” she said.

Herron also urged religious leaders to help members in their communities navigate the complex new layers of health care. She described how her clinic is helping clients to register for health coverage, but signing up is only the first step.

“As they are approved, our patients cry. They’re so happy. They are overwhelmed,” she said. “Then, they ask us: ‘Now what?'” Countless men and women are coming into health-care systems this year for the first time. Many of them have no experience accessing doctor’s offices, hospitals and pharmacies. Congregations can share helpful information to smooth this often rocky transition.

Melissa DaSilva—director of operations for Advantage Health Centers, which specialize in linking government programs especially with people who are struggling with homelessness—told the crowd that health care is more than a matter of dispensing treatment.

“Health care is also about helping people to achieve wellness by obtaining a housing wage and affordable housing,” she said.

As DaSilva urged participants to think broadly about health and caregiving in their communities, many heads nodded and pens scratched notes about her recommendations. Other speakers echoed her broader vision of the challenge shared by health care systems and religious groups.

Marcella Wilson, president of MATRIX Human Services, talked about the MATRIX method of linking a wide range of programs to help men and women move out of chronic cycles of poverty. It’s not enough simply to treat a medical condition, or provide a shelter, or serve food—or provide any one response disconnected from others, she said. Helping people climb out of poverty requires many kinds of partnerships. She urged faith leaders to find out how they can contribute to such efforts, wherever they are based.

This is hard work, Wilson told the crowd. “As leaders in a city with desperate need and boundless optimism, we need to remember that vision without backbone is hallucination!”

Renee Branch Canady, chief executive of the Michigan Public Health Institute, echoed Wilson’s and DaSilva’s appeals for broad vision in meeting the needs of people living in poverty. Canady’s nonprofit advocates at all levels—from local communities to Washington D.C.—on behalf of collaborative programs to build healthier communities.

“I don’t want my grandchildren to still be having this conversation,” Canady told the crowd. One way to inspire the hard work of forging cooperative new programs is to tap into our deepest values, including the values within faith communities. “We must invite our values to the table with us,” she said.

Adding to the list of issues that congregations can address, Canady said one challenge religious groups might tackle is easier access to everyday, healthful activities. An example: Many neighborhoods don’t have safe and barrier-free areas where residents can go walking each day.

“We must look at the built environment around us,” she said. “If we want people to get exercise by walking more, then we have to provide places they can walk. We have to make the healthy choice the easy choice. Can people walk around your neighborhood?”

The Rev. Dr. Urias Beverly told the crowd about the deep roots of these issues in the Abrahamic faiths. Beverly is the director of the doctor of ministry and the Muslim chaplaincy programs at the Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit. He also serves as professor of pastoral care and counseling,

“Health and religion have been wedded as long as there have been men and women on the earth,” Beverly said.

Tom Watkins, president of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority, closed the conference by reminding faith leaders that mental health issues are an essential part of congregational caregiving.

“There is not a zip code in the United States that is not touched by the mental health care system,” Watkins said. “And if your own family and friends have not been touched by mental health issues—then it’s only a matter of time before someone you know is a part of this.”

He urged religious leaders to go home and spread the word: “Without quality mental health care—you don’t have quality health care.”

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

 

Comments: (0)
Categories: CaregivingChildren and FamiliesChristianChurch GrowthGreat With GroupsMuslim

The Philip Yancey interview: ‘The Question that Never Goes Away’

Click the cover to visit the book's Amazon page.

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Where is God when … the next hurricane hits, the next wildfire rages, the next nuclear accident spews radiation, or the next civil war strikes down men, women and children?

As each tragedy erupts, people of faith rush to reassure the world that God remains a source of hope. But, sometimes, their well-intentioned messages do more harm than good. A deeper, haunting question remains unresolved: Why? Why did this disaster happen in the first place? Why were some spared and others destroyed?

Now, best-selling author and journalist Philip Yancey, whose books are read around the world, tackles that question. And he doesn’t chart an easy course for himself. He writes about that core question—Why?—in light of the Japanese nuclear disaster, the civil war in the former Yugoslavia and the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. He calls the book simply, The Question That Never Goes Away: Why?

If you are familiar with Philip Yancey’s Sterling credentials as a major evangelical voice in America, you may be surprised by the hard-earned honesty of this book. This is not a volume of pat answers. It’s not soft soap. In fact, the book opens with a heart-rending scene: the death of Philip’s own father in a tragic case of well-meaning Christians actually causing the death.

Throughout his career, Philip Yancey has written and spoken many times about the questions: Why do such horrible things happen? Where is God when they do? That has generated a constant stream of letters from readers about this theme until Philip finally decided that he should pull the most stirring letters from his files and revisit them. On this issue alone, he found that he had saved more than 1,000 letters!

What caused Philip to address this haunting cluster of questions right now? He tells us that it was prompted by three life-changing experiences in 2012. As a journalist, he describes them in detail in this new volume that is such a page-turner, you’re likely to read it in a single sitting. He summarizes the trio of experiences this way:

“In 2012, I spoke to groups … three times, in the most daunting circumstances. … In March, I stood before congregations in the Tohoku region of Japan on the first anniversary of the tsunami that slammed into land with the velocity of a passenger jet, snapping railroad tracks like chopsticks and scattering ships, buses, houses, and even airplanes across the ravaged landscape. In its wake, with 19,000 dead and whole villages swept out to sea, a busy secular nation that normally has no time for theological questions thought of little else.

“In October, I spoke on the question in Sarajevo, a city that had no heat, fuel or electricity and little food or water for four years while sustaining the longest siege in modern warfare. Eleven thousand residents died from the daily barrage of sniper fire and from the shells and mortars that fell from the sky like hail. …

“As 2012 drew to a close, I accepted perhaps the hardest assignment of all … in the sheer intensity of horror and intimate grief. The weekend after Christmas, I addressed the community of Newtown, Connecticut, a town reeling from the senseless slaughter of 20 first-graders and 6 of their teachers and staff.”

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talked with Philip Yancey. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH PHILIP YANCEY ON
‘THE QUESTION THAT NEVER GOES AWAY:
WHY?’

DAVID: In this book about vast tragedies, you begin by telling readers about 1 death: When you were an infant, your father was disabled by polio. He needed to use a breathing machine, what then was called an “iron lung.” But your family belonged to a Fundamentalist church that convinced him to quit using the machine, so that prayer could heal him. Instead, your father died. It was an agonizing experience that shaped your own life.

Philip Yancey author of The Question That Never Goes AwayPHILIP: This was foundational for me, in an indirect way. I have no conscious memory of it because I was just a year old when it happened, but the overflow of this experience did affect me every day of my childhood. What I learned from that experience was not that different from other things I learned from the rather rigid church in which I grew up. The people in that church had very good intentions. The people who removed my father from his “iron lung” had good intentions. They thought they knew God’s will, but in that case they were flat-out wrong. He died.

That’s true of a lot of things in church history, isn’t it? I learned early on that you couldn’t swallow everything the church tells you. You’ve got to figure it out yourself; you’ve got to investigate. This idea flowered as a teenager. I learned that some of the things the church was telling me were wrong, in particular the racism of the church. And, for a while in my life, I threw the whole idea of faith off. I look back on that experience as healthy. It would have been unhealthy if I had just kept believing and accepting everything the church was telling me at that point. This stimulated my journalistic instincts before I knew what to call those instincts.

DAVID: People who know about your books and your work around the world may think of you as an evangelist. You’re very popular as an inspiring speaker. But your true vocation is journalism and you’ve always insisted that this role as a journalist is crucial to properly understanding your work.

PHILIP: The reason I identify as a journalist is because a journalist doesn’t begin as an expert in any one field. A journalist is a generalist, not an expert. Let’s say I’m assigned to write an article about nuclear physics. I don’t know anything about that subject but there are resources available. I can go to libraries. I can go to the Los Alamos lab. I can talk to physicists. I can eventually write an article that explains physics to people, at least a general introduction. That’s going to be quite different than asking a research physicist to write an article about his work. A lot of the books that are sold as religious books are written by the physicists of the church, the scholars, the experts.

In my work, I begin talking to people about their life experiences. That’s how I report on subjects like prayer or the problem of pain. I approach those questions from the journalist’s perspective. That’s true of everything I write. I started as a magazine writer and editor and made my living as a journalist. This new book goes beyond the usual journalistic perspective, because it comes out of three concrete experiences in three real places: Japan, Sarajevo and Newtown. But I do follow journalistic style here in the way I open each section with a description of what happened, then I write about how people lived through these experiences, then I write about my own experiences looking into what happened in these places.

I am not just asking and answering my own questions. I want readers to try to understand what it felt like to have been living in Japan when suddenly your entire village was washed away, or what it felt like to be a parent in Newtown on the day of the shootings and afterward. I want readers to experience the stories of these people, because their real stories give passion, depth and reality to the questions we all are raising after such tragedies.

THE PROBLEM WITH GOOD INTENTIONS

DAVID: You admit in the opening of your book that, all too often, people of faith wind up making things worse in their rush to reassure people after a disaster.

PHILIP: That is very true. And I do use the phrase “well intentioned.” One example: So many of the clichés you hear at funerals, or explanations given to children after a disaster, actually wind up making people feel worse instead of better. A common comment I heard, as a journalist talking to people who had survived terrible tragedies was: “The church made it worse.” Well-intentioned people show up hoping to help and share all sorts of theories about what had just happened. Many of those easy explanations were confusing and, in the end, made things worse.

VICTOR FRANKL AND THE SEARCH FOR MEANING

DAVID: In your book, readers will meet a lot of very wise people. As a good journalist, you draw together lots of such wisdom in your reporting. One figure you include in your book, who we just profiled in our online magazine, is Victor Frankl, the Auschwitz survivor who wrote about the importance of finding meaning in life even in the most deadly circumstances. Tell us why you included him.

PHILIP: What struck me most, the first time I read Victor Frankl, was the idea that despair is suffering without meaning. The Nazis actually carried out experiments in having prisoners work without meaning. They might have someone move rocks across a field all day long. The next day, they’d move the rocks back. Over and over again. This would break the will of the laborers and, eventually, the meaninglessness would break them down completely. Frankl argued that the human mind can survive extremely severe experiences if we can find some meaning in what we are going through.

Now, you can carry this argument too far. It’s easy to misunderstand. Some people might read Frankl and think it’s just a simple formula: find meaning and you’ll survive. Well, that’s not true. A lot of people who did find meaning in Auschwitz died anyway. Most people who passed through Auschwitz died. The same is true in other great tragedies people face today. It’s not a simple formula that guarantees survival.

But it is true that if you can just find meaning in the suffering, you can endure in a different way and you can do this probably more effectively than someone who doesn’t find meaning. I believe that principle is the same principle that Jesus uses when he encountered people who were suffering. In John 9, for example, Jesus encounters a man born blind and the disciples immediately ask: Who sinned? This man? His parents? That scene shows you the absurdity of such questions. Jesus dismisses the questions. He didn’t offer neat, formulaic theories about why something happened. Jesus was focused on: Yes, something bad has happened here, but can something good come out of this? And the answer is always: Yes.

GOD IN RED CAPE AND BLUE TIGHTS?

DAVID: So, a healthy “search for meaning,” to borrow Frankl’s phrase, often focuses on the way forward, the next steps, the individual and community response. You know from your own life, from your father’s death in particular, that God is not Superman. Here’s the lesson that I came away with most clearly from your book: If we doubt God’s reality in the face of tragedy, then we’re looking toward God with the wrong vision, the wrong set of expectations. God’s not hovering up there in a red cape and blue tights, ready to fly into our lives at a moment’s notice and rescue us. God is most present in the community that responds even in the face of evil and trauma.

PHILIP: That’s very true in the way you’re describing it. But this can be misunderstood. As you say that, people may think you’re saying: God is unable to solve problems, so God has to go with Plan B.

The way I say it is: God is Plan A from the beginning. God is not a muscle-flexing figure. God wants us to do in our admittedly inept ways, often, what God could do with a snap of a finger. Remember that God did not come to us as Superman 2,000 years ago but as a helpless baby in a very oppressed and problematic context. Jesus had many chances to snap his fingers—and didn’t. That’s what the temptation scenes in the wilderness are all about. Jesus was tempted in the wilderness to snap his fingers and do great miracles, yet he didn’t. And, in the end, he tells his followers: Now, it’s up to you to do the work here.

Every parent celebrates when their child takes a first step. Just this morning, I received a little movie clip from a woman whose grandchild had taken her first step. One response to such a video would be to email back and say: “What’s the big deal? There are billions of people in the world and most of them can walk.” But, if you’re a grandparent, it is indeed a big deal. In that way, God takes pleasure in seeing the world respond to rebuild after a tsunami or in seeing the community of Newtown come together to heal. This is not a case of an inferior Plan B—it’s what God had in mind all along.

DAVID: As I was reading your book, I kept thinking of Queen Elizabeth II’s famous words of wisdom after a great tragedy. She said, “Grief is the price we pay for love.”

PHILIP: Absolutely. I had not heard that quote from Queen Elizabeth before, but I have spoken with so many people who tell me that grief is the place where love and pain converge.

DAVID: That’s a memorable line in your new book: Grief is the place where love and pain converge.

PHILIP: Yes, and I quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who warns us not to think that we can fill that space. He wrote, “Nothing can make up for the absence of someone we love, and it would be wrong to try to find a substitute; we must simply hold out and see it through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation. It remains unfilled, preserves the bonds between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap. God does not fill it, but on the contrary, God keeps it empty and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain.”

This is such an important truth. When someone is lost, it’s important not to say: “You won’t feel the grief after a while.” Or: “You’ll get back to normal soon.” That loss may never go away. The parents who lost their children in Newtown can choose to fill their gaps in healthy or in unhealthy ways. They can become obsessed with questions or with bad advice they have been given.

I am saying: Grief itself can be a healthy thing. It’s a symbol of our love.

 Care to read more?

  • MORE FROM PHILIP YANCEY: Visit Philip’s own website where he offers columns and news about his ongoing work.
  • INTERFAITH PEACEMAKERS: Our Victor Frankl profile is part of a much larger effort—called Interfaith Peacemakers—celebrating the lives of men and women around the world whose faith leads them to risk crossing boundaries and making peace, often with others they never expected would help to form a new community.
  • OUR READ THE SPIRIT BOOKSTORE: We’ve published dozens of books on related themes. Please visit our online Bookstore.
  • WAITING FOR THE MOVIE VERSION? Our website now includes the work of long-time faith-and-film writer Edward McNulty—called Visual Parables—in which Ed shares more than 1,000 thoughtful columns on films that make us think about our faith in fresh ways.

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

Comments: (1)
Categories: Author InterviewsBibleGreat With GroupsPeacemaking

The Rodney Curtis interview on his Laughing in the Face of Fear trilogy

Click this image to visit Rodney Curtis's author page.

Click this image to visit Rodney Curtis’s author page.

Laugh in the face of fear.

Wow! Do we need this now!

Just in time for gift giving, our beloved ReadTheSpirit columnist Rodney Curtis finally has completed his trilogy of books about tackling each new day with friends, family—and laughter. That idea may sound simple, but this is deep wisdom. We all remember, “Laughter is the best medicine.” We recall how the famous journalist Norman Cousins laughed himself back to health in the 1970s—and was played by Ed Asner in the movie version of his inspiring story. Now, there’s scientific research on the value of laughter—ask Dr. Bernie Siegel, who we interviewed recently in these pages.

Rodney has weathered life’s toughest challenges—and has taken this hard-earned wisdom in a fresh direction. He invites readers to laugh along with him in these real-life stories. His books also are packed with photos and even links to audio and video.

That’s the big news from ReadTheSpirit this week: Just in time for Christmas, we are releasing Rodney Curtis’s third volume, Getting Laid (off). His first book—before Rodney was hit with the twin plagues of cancer and job loss—is Spiritual Wanderer. That was followed by A “Cute” Leukemia. Now, it’s a complete trilogy, perfect for that hard-to-shop-for friend or relative.

In this week’s Cover Story, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talks with Rodney Curtis about this amazing and amusing journey.

HIGHLIGHTS
OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH RODNEY CURTIS

DAVID: I think your books are perfect gifts for someone who desperately needs a little laughter.

RODNEY: (laughs) Oh, now that’s a pitch! Who wouldn’t want to find cancer and unemployment under their Christmas tree! Just look at what Rodney’s brought you!

DAVID: Hey, no kidding. This trio of books can be the perfect gift for a lot of hurting people. And, right now, you’ve reached a pretty wonderful milestone yourself, right? You’re feeling so good, now, that I understand you would like to be back in a classroom again in 2014, teaching college students.

RODNEY: I’m up for almost anything the future may hold.

DAVID: That phrase really does describe you as a writer: “Up for almost anything.” So, let’s begin this interview by bringing readers up to speed about your three books. I’ll ask you to describe each one. Let’s start with Spiritual Wanderer. In just a few words: What’s it about?

RODNEY: That first book is a mishmash of stories, full of my meanderings and a lot of my silliness, too. The stories go from walking my dog to really deep spiritual issues. Although, now that I think about it, we should probably put the words spiritual issues in quote marks because—when it comes to religion and me? Or, when it comes to spirituality and me? We go together like hot sauce on candy bars.

DAVID: Good point. I often tell people that Spiritual Wanderer is the first book I’ve read in years that always makes me laugh out loud. I mean, I’ve read that book a dozen times—and I still laugh when I read the story about your dogs—”Dog Duty.”

RODNEY: Yeah! That’s one of the funniest stories in that first book—and it’s absolutely true. Our dog went out in the back yard one day in December and—well, if you’re a pet lover you know what happens: The dog relieves himself—except, this time, out pops figures from our Advent calendar!

DAVID: No “spoilers” here, so we’ll leave the dog story with that one strange image. In reading that story, I’ve seen grown men and women spit their morning coffee out their noses because they get to laughing so hard. Let’s describe the second volume.

RODNEY: My next book, A “Cute” Leukemia, is about what happened when I got leukemia. The title comes from June of 2010, when I checked into the hospital and they told me, “You’ve got acute leukemia.” And my immediate thought was: “Oh, this is fun! I’ve got A ‘Cute’ Leukemia.” That’s how my mind works. My first response was to try to treat the cancer as some kind of little, tiny, ridiculous baby that was fussing at me. And you know what we’re supposed to do in those situations, right? We use good humor with a fussy baby.

Of course leukemia is a savage disease—very serious.  Yet, when you’re faced with it yourself, the question is: How do we respond? What do we do? And this humorous approach I took really did help me get through this.

DAVID: What’s the correct way to describe your relationship to leukemia today?

RODNEY: I am cured. That’s how we say it. I had a stem-cell transplant in October 2010. It is true that after some kinds of cancer treatments, people say they are in remission. That usually means the cancer isn’t visible anymore, but still may be lurking. I say: I’m cured. After a successful stem-cell transplant, the goal is to make your chances of getting cancer just like the chances for anyone else. And, that’s what happened to me. Thank goodness! Right?

DAVID: And the third book?

RODNEY: The third book, Getting Laid (off), is about just what the title says—losing your job. I worked in journalism and journalism cheated on me. I had been married to journalism for many many years and, then all at once, journalism went out and decided it didn’t want to be faithful to me anymore. It left me—and I was out.

‘A CROSS BETWEEN MITCH ALBOM & DAVE BARRY’

Rodney Curtis and Darrel Ellis Dreadlocks For LoveDAVID: I tell people that in facing all these challenges—from ordinary daily adventures to big life-threatening crises—you write like a cross between Mitch Albom and Dave Barry. You’ve got the heart of Mitch—the inspiration and the sentiment of Mitch—but you’ve also the humor of Dave. You’re funnier than Mitch and you’re often more serious than Dave. Your style is somewhere in the middle, I’d say.

RODNEY: Well, thank you for saying those very nice things. That’s high praise.

I’ve written all my life. For years, I did it in the background of my work as a photographer. I’ve always felt that writing and photography can go hand in hand. It was the fall of 2006 when I think I found my voice for real and started writing intensively at home—and couldn’t stop. I’d be out mowing my lawn and I’d think of something—and I’d just have to write it down. That was really an epic change for me. I’m amazingly thankful for all of that.

DAVID: When you write, you often write funny stuff—but these aren’t joke books. You’re not going for a laugh specifically. You’re more of a storyteller than a jokester.

RODNEY: That’s how I think of what I’m writing. I tell stories I’d like to hear. I like to hear people tell real stories about their lives, so I write stories about my real experiences. I’d probably be a failure as a fiction writer. And, no, I don’t set out to tell jokes. I’m sharing stories and I am inviting readers to have fun with me.

DAVID: Tell us the story behind the hair photo, in the cancer book, which took place when you were losing your own hair. One day, you decided to share someone else’s hair.

RODNEY: That was the day in July of 2010, when my friend from the Detroit News, Darrel Ellis, visited me along with his wife Leslie. He had these long, long dreadlocks and I was mostly bald by that time. I said, “Oh, man, Darrel! I wish I had your hair!”

Then, we said: “Wait a minute! We’ve got a camera. This can happen!” We lay down on the bed and his wife snapped that photo.

I think that photo epitomizes my stay in the hospital—which my family and I often called the hotel. From my first day in the hotel, I tried to follow the advice: “Make it your own. Be Rodney.”

DAVID: What does that mean? “Make it your own.”

RODNEY: My aunt works for the Mayo clinic and she happens to study my exact illness. She told me, “You’re going to be in the hospital for a while. Try not to wear hospital clothes and lay there all the time. Wear your own clothes. Move around.” I did listen to what she told me. She said, “Be Rodney.”

DAVID: That matches up with a lot of other advice we’ve published in WeAreCaregivers, which is hosted by Heather Jose, and I know that she’s asked you to write a guest column for WeAreCaregivers about this very issue. So, I’ll recommend that to readers.

The attitude you’re describing here really shines through in your book, A “Cute” Leukemia.

RODNEY: It was therapy for me simply to put together that book—one story and photo and media clip at a time. And I’ve already heard from readers that it has helped them, too, as they try to deal with what really is a dreaded and deadly disease. My father died of lung cancer at age 56, so I know all about the tragic side of cancer. I dreaded it like nobody’s business. When I faced it myself, I said: “This is huge. This is my choice, now, as to whether this will be the end—or it will be the beginning of something new.”

And, believe me: I wanted this to lead to something new!

DAVID: We just published an interview with Dr. Bernie Siegel, who was widely slammed by his colleagues when he began writing about his unorthodox approaches to healing. Now, in fact, a lot of his early unorthodox ideas have become by-the-book orthodox approaches to healing. With Bernie, we talked about this whole history of changing perceptions. We talked about Norman Cousins, who checked himself into a hotel room and got—at that time—a bunch of VHS tapes of funny TV programs. He insisted that laughter was a huge part of healing. Cousins was slammed, too, at the time. Now, Bernie Siegel points out that no one doubts this wisdom, anymore. I see you in this tradition of Norman Cousins, coming at this from a journalistic perspective. Now, there’s even solid research into the benefits of intentional laughter—actually helping yourself by making yourself laugh.

In your case, Rodney, you were confined for a long time, right? You were laughing in some very tough situations.

RODNEY: I was in three different facilities. The first one was for six weeks night and day. Then, a second time I was in for several days. And, finally, I was in for about a month.

DAVID: You spent about three months in hospitals in 2010.

RODNEY: That’s right. And the staff loved the way I approached this. They laughed with me. You know, at the end of that year, a bunch of them came to my house and surprised me with some Christmas presents. It was amazing! I made friends I continue to chat with on a daily basis, several years later.

‘Ello, I’m Nigel! (and other tales of comic coping)

DAVID: Self image is a big part of this. It’s tough to see yourself change so dramatically. Hair loss is a big issue.

RODNEY: Some of my friends began bringing me funny wigs. I remember one time, they brought me this wig that made me look like some kind of aging British rocker. That led to this whole story I spun out of being just that—not Rodney in the hospital with leukemia, but a British rock star in rehab. I had this IV pole with me all the time, at that point, and I remember I put on the wig and grabbed my IV pole, which I called, “Ivy.” I found these crazy Elton John-style glasses. And, that day, we wandered around the wards with me appearing as this wild old rock star. “‘Ello, I’m Nigel!” I’d say in this crazy accent. The nurses got into it and pulled out their camera phones. They were the paparazzi. It made us all happy. We all felt a lot of caring and a lot of love that day.

DAVID: I know you live your life this way, every day, wherever you are. But let’s address those readers who are saying: “Well, of course, Rodney can do this. He’s a funny guy. I’m not funny. My family isn’t funny. And these things he’s writing about—cancer or losing your job—those certainly aren’t funny.”

RODNEY: I’d say, “OK, well, humor may not be your thing. So, find your own thing and focus on it.” Music is great and a lot of people enjoy singing. They may not be great musicians who can play an instrument—but singing is a lot of fun. Anybody can sing. Do you like poetry? A lot of people write or read poetry. Maybe sports is your thing. So, focus on sports. Talk about sports with the people you encounter; keep up on sports. Ask yourself: What’s my passion? What can I focus on, every day, that makes me as happy as possible?

DAVID: What prepared you for this approach to life? Let’s go back for a moment. You’ve got some stories sprinkled through your three books about your childhood and early family life. Now, I’m 58 and I grew up, I’d say, in a Leave-It-to-Beaver-era home. You’re about a decade younger than me. So, did you grow up in a Brady Bunch home?

RODNEY: Yeah, Brady Bunch and maybe a little Partridge Family thrown in there, as well.

DAVID: So, one thing that never happened in those classic TV shows was: cancer. And, of course, none of the Dads or Moms in TV families had to worry about job loss. I guess the Partridge Family did have a single Mom raising her pop-star kids. But these huge anxieties so many of us face now—cancer and job loss—are things that in many ways we were not well equipped to anticipate in the eras when we were growing up.

RODNEY: Yeah, the anxiety is huge. And it hits you hard. And most of us aren’t prepared. It’s especially bad when you start to think: You’re someone’s father. You’re someone’s husband.

Comparing the two—job loss and cancer—I have to say that the cancer diagnosis is many rungs higher on the anxiety ladder than job loss. You’re suddenly faced with a life-or-death situation. To this day, I don’t mean to suggest that I’ve got all the anxiety resolved. The stresses still arise in my life—and this is long after the trauma with cancer—when I sit there recalling it for some reason. The worst for me is realizing how unfair this was for my daughters. I feel bad that they had to face this with me.

When you lose your job, you feel like you’ve let down your family and that’s terrible. Then, with cancer, especially if you’ve got kids at home like I did, this feels like you’ve let down your family 10 fold more than that! Thankfully, my family and I, now, have gone through these deep black holes together—job loss and cancer—and now, as we’re sitting here talking, I think I can say we’re all safely out the other side.

You can get through this. If I’ve got one message in all of this, that’s it: Yes, you can get through this.

DAVID:  See, that’s not a bad message to wrap up and put under your Christmas tree this season: Life’s tough. But, you know what? We can get through this.

Care to read more from Rodney?

VISIT RODNEY CURTIS’S AUTHOR PAGE IN OUR BOOKSTORE: Learn more about Rodney; read sample chapters—and use the easy links in our bookstore to buy copies of his book through Amazon, Barnes &  Noble or other retailers. (Yes, you can buy print or e-editions.)

ENJOY RODNEY CURTIS’S LATEST COLUMNS: His department within ReadTheSpirit has been a favorite destination for our readers over many years.

READ & SHARE RODNEY CURTIS’S ADVICE FOR CAREGIVERS: His new guest column in our WeAreCaregivers department contains some of Rodney’s savvy advice that you’re sure to want to share with friends.

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

Comments: (2)
Categories: Author InterviewsGreat With Groups