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Life's Illusions

by James McCormick

I want to share with you some very personal experiences in the belief that with this revelation will come an awareness that beneath the very thin facade which we show our fellow man we are all of a kindred spirit. The battles we are fighting, which we think are uniquely our own, are shared by all of us. I hope that I cause you to have a feeling of love and understanding for those around you that you have never felt before.

I grew up in a small Texas town in the 1930s and early 1940s. The center of my life was the Baptist church. My mother saw that my two brothers and I were on the very front pews every Sunday, and my religious concepts were molded by that experience.

I grew up to embrace without question an omniscient and omnipotent God who ruled the world in an orderly fashion. All of the values I possessed were instilled by that background. And then I had an experience in 1943 that completely shattered my values, my belief in the orderliness of things and in the God whom I had assumed was in charge.

I was a twenty-year-old flyer, just a boy, responsible for a crew, most of whom were older than I. To this day, I believe it was my fault that one of those men died. The event changed my life. I came first to despise and later to simply reject a God who could let such a thing happen. The God Whom I had accepted without question as a child was too much in charge to allow such an event, and if he would, I simply didn't need him anymore . . . so I just erased him from my need.

A remarkable change occurred in my life that lasted until I was in my first year of college. The change affected me in strange ways:

I set out with a passionate zeal to get an education. Always a mediocre student in high school, I was admitted to college on academic probation. I did four years of work in exactly twenty-three months, graduating with two degrees, number three scholastically in a class of more than three hundred. I mention this fact not to indicate how smart I am, which I am not, but rather to show with what zeal I pursued the job of getting an education.

I became a physical fitness buff, building the muscles in my body, conditioning myself both mentally and physically.

I became very aggressive, maybe even ruthless, about making money.

Up to that point, my objective was not to be rich, I just didn't want to be poor. I didn't want my family to be poor.

I believe I was attempting to insulate myself from all need--physical, financial, and particularly, spiritual. I had subconsciously decided that if God did not exist, I had to make it in this world without him.

Suddenly the independent and secure life I had built for myself was shattered. I awoke embowelled in an iron lung. My strong body was completely paralyzed, and I was even more helpless than I was the moment I was born. For the first time in my life, I was one hundred percent dependent on something or someone other than myself.

At this point, let me attempt in a few words to describe the indescribable--life in an iron lung.

- Complete and absolute paralysis of the entire body.

- The claustrophobic panic of being enclosed in a small metal tank.

- Being able to see only the ceiling, not even the walls.

- The inability to communicate because of paralysis of vocal muscles.

- The unbelievable, never-ceasing noise of the machine I was a prisoner of.

- The inability to eat or even swallow saliva because of muscle paralysis.

- The constant pain and never-ending trickle of bleeding from the pressure of the sealing collar on the tracheotomy.

- Smelly, painful, unhealable bed sores.

- Narcotic-induced nightmares.

- Waking up to a reality that was always worse than the nightmare.

- The sight and ever-present smell of death.

- Utter and complete despair and hopelessness.

- The constant realization that I might not die, that I might be suspended in this hell for forty years.

With nowhere else to go, I sought the God I had rejected years earlier. "God," I said (and there were no "thee's" and "thou's" in these silent but passionate conversations--this was man-to-man talk). "If you will take me from this life, I will find some way to make it up to you. I am helpless, God. I cannot even take my own life, and you must do it for me." I knew I had become more of a burden to my family alive than if I were dead.

Later, the deal was, "God, if you will take this pain from me, I will never ask for another thing. I will lie in this machine for the rest of my life and will ask nothing more of you."

Then later, "God, I appreciate that you took the pain away, and I remember my promise, but let me request only one more thing. Please take away the craving for the drugs which were used to eradicate the pain. God, the craving for the dope is worse than the pain, and I didn't anticipate this. You have an obligation to me."

And later, "God, only one little other thing. Please make it so I can swallow again, so I can eat food and drink water, so that I can have these needles out of my veins and this tube out of my neck and my throat. God, for months I have listened to the sound of the water fountain just outside my door. A drink of water is the last thing I shall ever ask of you.

And later, "God, if I could only get out of this hospital bed one hour each day and be put into a wheelchair so that I could be taken out of this room." And later, "God, won't you give me just enough strength in my arms so that I can move the wheelchair myself?"

And later, "God let me walk on crutches. Is that so much to ask?"

I took several more hills in my life for me to realize that a person who does not hurt, who is not hungry, who can get up from where he is and go to another place, has everything. Anything else he has is a bonus.

To this day, I never take a drink of water that I am not grateful for my ability to swallow. I never drive by a hospital that I do not say a silent prayer of gratitude that I am not inside or, more importantly, that someone I love is not inside.

Several years back, I walked through the cemetery to where our little son and daughter lie buried, and I stood silently beside the graves for a long time. Finally, Michael, who was standing quietly beside me and who was then five, tugged at my sleeve and said, "Let's go, Daddy." Michael came from an Adoption Home, and we wouldn't have him if we had not experienced the heartache that was reflected in those two tiny tombstones.

What an unbearable thought it would be to think of life without Michael and without Kelly Elizabeth, who came to enrich our lives two years later from the same place. With pride I have watched them grow though the years and am occasionally overcome by the realization that it was divine destiny that gave them to us. These were the two we were supposed to have--not the ones in the graves.

How difficult it is to realize, but what a miracle it is, that Michael and Kelly each came to us as the result of the problems of two young girls whose identities we shall never know. Somewhere two women still carry the scars on their souls and bear heartaches that have resulted ironically in great joy and happiness for us. Each tear they shed has been offset by a thousand smiles.

That's what life is about. God creates a single tear which is miraculously transformed into a thousand smiles. The secret of serenity is the realization by the person who sheds the tear that God will do good with it, the realization that there is purpose sometimes we will never even know how and when the good will manifest. In my morning prayers, I thank God for the painful cancer that has invaded my body. When I am hurting, that is a hard prayer to say, but my experience has been that every single thing that has happened to me has ultimately become a blessing.

Let me tell you something about you that you may not have ever admitted to yourself. Most of us live an illusion. The illusion is that tomorrow or next week or next year I am going to be the kind of person I want so passionately to be. Forevermore, most of us go through life sincerely believing that:

- Once Mary and I recapture what we had when we first married. . .

- Once I find a good husband (or wife). . .

- Once I get control of my drinking problem. . .

- Once our children are educated, married and happy. . .

- Once my health is restored. . .

- Once I am happy in my work. . .

- Once I get my faith in God straightened out. . .

When I get these problems behind me, then I'll be happy. We say to ourselves, "About next spring all my problems should be over. I'll just have to muddle through til then--God knows I can't be happy now!"

I'm sorry to tell you, "Forget it." Life, from infancy to the grave, is a series of obstacles to overcome. Beyond every hill is another, and to believe that the current hill is the last is to live a life of illusion which will forevermore preclude true serenity. Life is always going to be seven points behind third down and six--only the quarters change.

How often do we hear, "Why did God let that happen?" The fact is that the problems, the hardships, and the heartaches are a significant and meaningful part of the whole fabric of life. Paradoxically, they are the yeast, the catalysts of life, and without them we would live in indescribable misery. Does that sound strange to you? I am sure it does--but think about it for a while.

I'm taking a course in philosophy and religion. The teacher said we needed to strive for complete serenity and absence of pain on our lives. My response was, "You have just described Hell."

Why is this so? I do not know, but somehow I am convinced that the answer is entwined and inextricably involved with who and what God is. In my own life and observing the lives of others, I have already seen enough to convince me that the last thing I want is a life without troubles, and that to wait for such a day before I begin to enjoy life is to squander the most precious gift I will ever have--life itself.

The fact that I can't run the one-hundred-yard dash anymore is a whale of a lot less important than the fact that in the things that really count--love of God, love of family, love of friends, love of life itself--I am winning a race of a different kind.

God makes us the way we are. We feel both the bitter and the sweet, but the bitter magnifies the sweet. No man really enjoys the pleasure of breathing unless he has had an iron lung breathe for him. No one loves a child as deeply as one who has lost a child. No one appreciates the echo of his own steady heartbeat on his pillow in the stillness of the night like a man who has served time in the intensive care section of a hospital coronary unit. No one appreciates life as much as someone who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Yes, there is a divine scheme of order and meaning of life. The wars, the riots, the assassinations--the collective as well as the individual heartaches--have meaning and purpose. An inexplicable God is well in command, and to believe otherwise is to believe there is not God, or to believe in such a puny, innocuous God that we would be just as well off without him.

Don't get hung up in what will inevitably be a futile effort to try to define or locate God. Don't get too intellectual or academic about it. I believe that God has neither form nor geography, and to attempt to define or locate him is as silly as asking a fish to explain the sea.

Accept the fact that God is, that he deeply loves you--wretched sinner though you may be, that he loves you and has purpose and meaning in every minute facet of your life, whether you are the Pope or Saddam Hussein, a preacher or a dope peddler, that he loves the murderer with the same fervor that he loves the murdered.

The most virtuous person in this world has no priority in God's eyes over the wino who is lying right now in a drunken stupor in some alley in every large city in the world. Yes, we displease God, but we never do anything that diminishes his love for us.

God is love.

God is love.


And love is infinitely more powerful than atomic energy. It is the most powerful force in the universe.

What kind of God is this? It is the only kind of God I can comprehend, paradoxically an incomprehensible God who weaves life into an enigmatic fabric from black threads as well as gold, but in the finished product a fabric whose beauty would be diminished by the absence of either.

When I awake each morning, there is that brief moment between full consciousness and sleep. In those first awakening moments before opening my eyes, I listen for the sound of harps, and when I don't hear them I am overjoyed. Realizing that I didn't die during the night is a great start for my day.

As consciousness conquers sleep and I begin to get my creaky motor cranked and running, I get excited about the day ahead--the good and the not-so-good. I'm glad it's not all easy. I love the challenges and the feeling of elation that comes from slaying the dragons. The trick is to discern between what really is important and what isn't, the blessings God has abundantly bestowed on us all.

We have a son and daughter who are grown and live a thousand miles from us. To the best of my memory, I took them to the zoo one time when they were growing up. I don't think I ever read Robert Louis Stevenson to them. Why?--because there wasn't enough time after I had finished the Wall Street Journal.

Two of our grandchildren were with us a while back. I didn't work a day, spent the whole week playing with my grandchildren, because it was the most important thing in life that I could do with my time.

Several years ago, my mother and father were celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary. We had decided that each of the children would put in writing how we felt about Mother and Dad. My brother called--"I don't know what to say." My reply? "Say what you are going to wish you had said on the day of their funerals."

If you are a man, have you ever said to a dear friend, "Joe, I really love you"? Don't make him guess. Tell him. I'll guarantee that some day you're going to wish you had.

We used to have a little ritual at our house. At dinner I usually said, "I believe this was the best day of my life." One day I had had a particularly tiring day at work. I was weary at dinner time, and I neglected to say, "I believe this was the best day of my life." My daughter Kelly hesitated eating. I asked, "What's wrong, Kelly?" Her eyes moistened, and she replied, "Daddy, I'm sorry this was not the best day of your life." If it hadn't been up to that point, it was then.

A while back, I sat in my wheelchair on the deck behind our house in the early dawn hours of an unbelievably beautiful morning and was awe-struck by the wonders of nature. A gentle stream, a quiet pond, two squirrels playing tag, a blue jay teasing our tired old cat, a mother duck and babies, a gentle waterfall that took months to build because the rocks had to be moved inch by inch--the concrete mixed bucket by bucket, experiencing the pride that comes from having created something that was physically impossible for me to create. How I love the word "impossible," the challenge that the word offers.

I have learned the miraculous secret of enjoying the little pleasures. Now don't for a minute get the impression that I go around with a perpetual smile on my face. I have my ups and downs, and I must admit that there are occasions when the road looks so bumpy and long that it hardly seems worth the traveling. I believe that God meant for me to have these feelings too. But even on the bad days, everywhere I look is a sound, a smell, or a sight to warm the coldest heart. They are tiny things that will likely go unnoticed if one isn't attuned to them, but in fact they are the most rewarding experiences in life.

- The sound and smell of a coffee pot on a winter morning.

- An unexpected letter from someone I care for.

- To see our country's flag.

- A chance to do something nice for somebody, and nobody knows but me.

- The sound and sight of an open fire.

- To ride my three-wheeler Honda through God's beautiful forest with the wind blowing in my face.

- To have my grown daughters and sons hug my neck and say, "I love you, Dad."

- To tell stories to my grandchildren.

- To feel snow fall on my upturned face.

- To listen to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

- To be greeted by my loving wife at the end of a days work.

Last Wednesday my whole day was made by a sight I saw on the way to work--a white-haired old black man with a yellow flag helping a little first-grade white girl cross the street. I grew up in a town where a white person was not supposed to touch a black person. And the sight of that old man holding the little girl's hand brought a tear to my eye. I am glad God allowed me to live long enough to see this change in our land.

How thankful I am for the existence of an omnipotent God who has woven a divine scheme for all of us, which I shall not try to comprehend but will accept in the faith that HE knows what he is doing.

A while back, I received a verdict from my doctors that suggested that my heart was a hand grenade with a pin already pulled and that the condition was such that an attempt to correct the problem with surgery would almost certainly kill me. From the doctor's office, I went to a park and sat on a bench, for a long time.

I thought about the polio that had almost overnight transformed my strong young body into that of a frail old man. I thought about the insidious, painful cancer that still ravaged my body and for which I was told there was no cure.

As I sat there thinking, I slowly realized that the heart problem and the cancer were dragons that couldn't be wrestled with like some of the others I had encountered in my life. I learned to walk again--at age twenty-four--by first literally crawling inch by inch, and later by falling a thousand times--by breaking my arms--by pulverizing my knee caps--by banging my head on sidewalks--by slowly and over a long period of years teaching a psyche which is emotionally geared for one hundred miles an hour to live in a body that could be stopped dead in its tracks by an eight-inch curb.

But these problems were much different. These were elusive ghosts that I could not grapple with and wrestle to the floor. There was nothing to do but wait.

In my park bench deliberations, I realized that I had two options. One was to develop a completely different life style, to never again wrestle with heavy rocks in my beloved back yard, to never again saw firewood on our place in East Texas, to in effect structure my life with a doctor at its very center, to set myself in a easy chair that was never more than a quarter mile from a hospital emergency room and wring my hands in anguish until the grenade exploded. I finally concluded--"To hell with that."

What I opted for was the second alternative. And that was to bask in the warmth of the realization that my Creator had always taken every bad thing that had happened in my life and somehow made it a blessing for me.

And by God I'm still here! I say those words with reverence because God is responsible.

"I asked God for strength that I might achieve;

I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey.

I asked for health that I might do greater things;

I was given infirmity that I might do better things.

I asked for power that I might have the praise of men;

I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God.

I asked for all things that I might enjoy life;

I was given life that I might enjoy all things.

I got nothing that I asked for--but everything I had hoped for.

Despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.

Despite myself, I have been most richly blessed."

Author Unknown