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Do You Identify Yourself As A Disease?

“Get down off your cross.”

Harsh words, perhaps, especially when you consider that the one who said them is a longtime hospital chaplain, and the woman she was speaking to had just learned that a year after going through chemotherapy, she was still cancer free.

“Within two minutes, she started retelling the story of her diagnosis, and her surgery, and her chemo, even though as her chaplain I saw her every day,” recounted Debra Jarvis, an ordained minister affectionately known as “The Irreverent Reverend,” during last year’s TEDMED conference. “She was using words like suffering, agony, struggle. And she ended her story with, ‘I felt crucified.’”

It was then that Jarvis asked this woman to do what would likely require more of her than anything she’d done before: “Get down off your cross.”

Something Jarvis has observed during her many years working in an oncology care unit is the tendency to “identify ourselves by our wounds,” as “survivors” of something that, although significant, does not and should not define us. “What if people decided to claim their trauma as an experience, instead of taking it on as an identity?” she said. “Maybe it would be the end of being trapped in our wounds and the beginning of an amazing self-exploration, and discovery, and growth. Maybe it would be the start of defining ourselves by who we have become and who we are becoming.”

As Jarvis knows all too well, however, despite our best efforts to distance ourselves from this or that physical condition, there are, in her words, “powerful forces” pushing us to do just the opposite.

In 2005, she found herself in the same position as her friend from the hospital, having recovered from breast cancer and trying to sort out what it all meant. But instead of giving in to the temptation to identify herself as a “survivor,” as so many were encouraging her to do, Jarvis decided instead to claim the experience – and its meaning – for herself.

“It doesn’t have to be some gigantic extroverted meaning. We don’t all have to start a foundation, or write a book, or make a documentary,” she said. “Maybe we make one small decision about our lives that can bring about a big change.”

For some this has meant foregoing a largely disease-prone view of themselves for a more inspired outlook. “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord, ‘plans for well-being and not for trouble, to give you a future and a hope,’” it says in the Old Testament. Too often, though, mustering the humility to adopt such a divine and health-inducing view as our own can seem just as difficult as climbing down from whatever tortuous experience we’re clinging to.

Nevertheless, it is essential.

As those familiar with the Bible know, the crucifixion was followed by the even more compelling resurrection of Jesus, a term Mary Baker Eddy describes as “Spiritualization of thought; a new and higher idea of immortality, or spiritual existence; material belief yielding to spiritual understanding.” Is it possible, then, that this “higher idea” of his innate spirituality was what enabled Jesus to not simply endure but ultimately overcome the agony of his crucifixion?

The good news is that this sort of transformation of thought is not exclusive to Jesus or to the time in which he lived. It’s available to anyone, here and now. Whether it’s an irreverent hospital chaplain, a good friend, or divine inspiration that’s encouraging us to get down off our cross and move on, we owe it to ourselves to comply.

In this way we can continue our story, claim our experience, and discover who and what we really are.

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