Karmic Collision IV: Like a (Kidney) Stone

< one >

Chekhov: “Any idiot can face a crisis; it is this day-to-day living that wears you out.”

Sometime around the late 1980s, I started having two recurring nightmares:

One, I’m maybe at home, or out somewhere, when the sky darkens and a dull roar starts up. It’s a tornado, bearing down on right where I am. I look for shelter, and either there isn’t any, or it’s not enough, and the tornado gets bigger and louder and then its roaring over me;  I  wake up trembling a with night sweats. Or

Two, I wake up, or at least I think I do, but when I try to move, I can’t. I’m paralyzed, and can’t speak either. Much later I read somewhere that this is a twilight, in-between state, no big deal, which goes away quickly. But I didn’t know that then; I would lie there in growing panic until, miraculously, a hand or a foot responds with a wiggle and then I was okay. But I still worried about if, next time, it could be permanent.

Let’s  review: from the outside, in those years I was earning more money than ever; I had job security, good health insurance, and a burgeoning retirement savings plan.

I was churning out the writing, mostly on Quakers, that I felt called to do. What was not to like?

Everything. Despite all this, I felt more and more trapped.

I know what you’re thinking: I would turn 48 in late 1990, and was  becoming a walking cliche: white guy in his mid-life crisis.

It was so banal, and so true. I could see where I would like to be: doing the Quaker stuff, writing and organizing, full-time.

But there was no way to do it. Quaker jobs were few, and mostly specialized: the largest Quaker employer around was FCNL, the Quaker lobby, its office right across the street from Senate office buildings. They were good at what they did. But did I mention (yes, I did, in the first installment)  that legislation and lobbying was even more unappealing to me than emptying out a big mail truck?

It’s embarrassing to look back at this from thirty-plus years later. It sounds so self-indulgent. But others who have been through it suggest otherwise.

The phrase that best sums this part of the experience up for me is a whimsical one, that I’ve seen on a bumpersticker and put on a button, and it’s this: “My Karma ran over my Dogma.”

More soberly, I’m borne up by something Pat Loring wrote in her Pendle Hill Pamphlet on Discernment, which I commend to any of you who have to face a comparable situation:

“There can be times in our lives when an utterly logical course, which was previously satisfying, suddenly seems barren or false–or it may just close down, forcing us into painful reexamination of the way we are to go. We may be seized by a sudden conviction that it is time to break with our past and begin some particular new venture…. Or we may wake one morning to find that a slow process of which we’ve been only marginally aware has crystallized, with a host of implications.” (Pendle Hill Pamphlet #305, “Spiritual Discernment.”)

Much of mine was slow in crystallizing. But one aspect was sudden and convulsive.

< two >

June 9, 1986. Not the height of summer heat yet, but sunny and warm. My station wagon was full of mail, on a new route, when there was a sharp twinge in my abdomen. I shifted on the broad bench seat. It happened again, stronger. I groaned.

Within a few minutes, I was pulling to a stop at the edge of a large suburban lawn. Staggering out, I collapsed on the grass, clutching at myself. What was happening?

A woman soon peeked out the front door of her ranch-style house. I called to her for help.

She didn’t move.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, AIDS research, 1980s

Who remembers the spring of 1986? Panic over this new plague, AIDS, was rampant. We had only begun hearing the name of a doctor named Fauci, who was spearheading efforts to identify it and find some treatment.

But what was it? And how did it spread? All this was still swathed in a cloud of knowing, unknowing and hysteria.

Was it only for homosexuals? Could you catch it by touch, or air — or from a stranger writhing on the fescue?

I didn’t blame her. And she did heed my plea to call an ambulance. Soon I was bouncing in the back of one, lights flashing and siren wailing, strapped down by EMTs and wondering why, if it was a heart attack, the pain was so far from where I thought my heart was?

< three >

In fact, my heart was fine. The invader was a good-sized kidney stone. Soon I was in a bed, hooked up to an IV and getting my first doses of an actual, honest-to-god opioid..

kidney stone

I hated the dope, though it was unavoidable. I had not been in a hospital as a patient since childhood. That was a good run, but the stone kept me from work for four weeks: I had insurance, but as a substitute, no sick leave. I barely escaped major surgery, which would have laid me up all summer.

Many of the gory details of the ordeal went into the delayed issue of my print edition of A Friendly Letter, which I had been about to start work on. More important was its psychological, and even spiritual impact. As I put it then,

I now realized only too clearly, I had taken great pride in my physical health, which meant freedom from such pain, such weakness, such dependency.

There were many sides to it: Ah yes, I learned, the list of things about my body of which I was proud was almost endless. And the word pride is used deliberately here, in its theological sense, as the chief of the seven deadly sins. That’s because I was coming to see that in all these items, it was the sense of control they yielded which was most important. “See what I have done?” said the body language,” I am in charge here; not nature, not God.. . .

An illusion, of course, which could be snatched away at any moment, as it had been from me.  But a deeply-rooted illusion. As the days went on, it seemed that practically all the items on my pride list were shown to be without substance. For withal, there I lay, doped up, hurting and needing constant care. Even my previously reliable bowels shut down completely.

A urologist came in to talk about treatment. He might be able to push it back up into the kidney, but the stone was too big to pass on its own. Instead, they used a very new technology, lithotripsy, which used concentrated sound waves to smash  the stone into sand, which could pass in normal urine. They  put me to sleep to do this, but it was not surgery.

Afterward, I was, at least for awhile, humbled in a new way:

As awful as this experience was, I don’t doubt that it had a purpose. I hesitate to try to pin it down. . . . But the encounter with my own form of body-pride was profound. It also cured me of a kind of willful ignorance about the reality and solitude of physical suffering, giving me new eyes to see the suffering of others, and I hope a deeper sense of compassion for them. And not least, it was a rare opportunity to give up my macho excuses and accept the support, love and prayers of others. . . . These are elementary lessons, the ABC as it were of humility; but I am mostly functionally illiterate in such things, so it is not a surprise that the initial lesson plan for me was a demanding one.


Back at work, again in Chekhov’s “day-to-day living” on the winding roads of Fairfax Station, the nightmares returned also. Besides the mail I now carried a new sense of fragility, and the memory of that landmark midlife epiphany, mortality.  It was no surprise when the tap on the shoulder came.

Previous posts in the “Karmic Collision” series

1- Karmic Collision – I: The Post Office, Voting Rights & Me

2 – Karmic Collision-II: Lab Rats and the Road Not Taken

3- Karmic Collision-III: Living My Double Life




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