Up until January of 1968 the first 13+ years of my life had been uneventful. Mostly I played baseball, stickball, basketball, and football, while attending elementary school somewhat reluctantly. Despite my lackadaisical effort at school I was an honor student, but being a baseball all-star meant much more.
On January 19, 1968 while playing basketball at an outdoor court I felt a pop in my lower right abdomen as I went up for a rebound. I thought nothing of it as I had gone up for the ball with my back to the basket arching in a way that stretched my abdominal area to its limit. Probably a pulled muscle.
That night I ignored the worsening pain; the only thing to discuss in our house that night was college basketball’s “Game of the Century” (yes, that is what it was being called) to be played the next night in the Houston Astrodome. Elvin Hayes (the “Big E”) vs. Lew Alcindor (soon to be Kareem Abdul Jabbar); #1 ranked UCLA vs. #2 ranked University of Houston. The two leaders of these teams would go on to have enormous success in the NBA, with Abdul Jabbar eventually surpassing Wilt Chamberlain’s career scoring record.
But by late in the evening I could not ignore the pain any longer. Our family doctor made the house call, which was common in those days. He reassured my mother and father that my diagnosis of a strained muscle was correct. He’d call in the morning to check in on me.
He did more than call, he stopped by the next day. Despite my fever he maintained his diagnosis and advised rest, heating pad, and aspirin, which were all applied. By 4 pm the pain was excruciating; I was curled up in a tight ball on the couch. My father carried me to the car, told mom to call the doctor and tell him he was on the way to the hospital. Bloodwork showed my white cell count to be over 20,000; over 11,000 is very high. Most importantly I “failed” the rebound test: press in firmly on the right side of the abdomen and get no pain, then release suddenly and the pain is horrific. Correct diagnosis: ruptured appendix.
By the way, that IS what the standard test for appendicitis is called: the “rebound” test. Considering my experience the day before, pretty ironic.
The emergency appendectomy performed that night went without incident, but the surgeon failed to put a drain in me, normal procedure for a ruptured appendix. For the next seven days I was dying. I’m not being dramatic here; I was dying. On the seventh day a doctor reopened me without anesthesia in my hospital room, expressed a foul smelling slime from my abdominal area and stuffed a drain in me. By that afternoon my fever was dropping and color returned to my face. Nine days later I was discharged, “healthy” again.
Except I wasn’t. I had become what William James nearly 70 years earlier had called a “sick soul.”
I returned to school in mid-February. My 8th grade teacher, Sister Helen, assured me that I had nothing to worry about concerning making up my school work. It was the first time I felt any appreciation for my academic skills. I walked with a limp; I could not stand straight, adopting a sort of Z-shaped posture. I had lost 20 pounds from a body frame that did not have a spare 20 pounds to lose. Baseball tryouts were a month later. I could not run by then. I could barely throw, and swinging a bat hard was out of the question. I made a team based on my reputation from my final season of Little League but that next season I mustered only two hits. I felt lost; I began to wonder “who am I?” By the summer of 1968 I had no answer to that question.
As a therapist I’ve been guided in much of my work by William James. In 1890 he published the first American Psychology textbook, The Principles of Psychology. It is still a landmark. In his text James articulated his perspective on what it means to be a “self.” James espoused that we have a “material self” at a most fundamental level; our bodies and material fortunes. Surrounding our material self is our “social self,” “the recognition (one) gets from his mates,” which includes our friends, family and others. And he posited that there is a “spiritual self” that transcends these other selves and is least frequently experienced, yet is most essential to our being. I have found this conceptualization useful as a therapist, including the inevitable therapy I have had to do with and for myself.
In early 1968 my material self dissolved in a fever of organic dissolution followed by the loss of all certainty and vigor derived from my athleticism, which had been the central organizing principle of my identity in those early years. My dad played minor league baseball in the Brooklyn Dodgers organization; being a baseball player was one way to connect, and connect deeply, with him. That part of my “self” was gone. My friendships, my playmates, all of my associates were known through my sports. Mostly gone as well. I entered my teen years, that period of time for identity formation according to Psychosocial Developmental Theory, with nothing to call “my self.”
Or so I thought. My freshman year in high school at an all-boys Catholic High School was awful. I sat alone in the cafeteria most lunch periods. I limped through Phys Ed. I ruminated; the depression filtered my mind so strongly that I could not even make a nominal effort at schoolwork. I managed to pass my classes, that’s all.
Sophomore year was better, as my material self had healed by then. My social self began to heal, but I was so, so lonely. The high school was a 45 minute bus ride from my hometown, and none of my friends attended. Those first two years lasted a lifetime.
My third year started off the same, but my Junior year Theology course was taught by Brother Peter Russell, who was the first teacher in that school to recognize that something had gone wrong in my life. He reached out to me. He forced me to go on a weekend-long retreat that fall with a great bunch of my fellow students, who had been largely unknown to me. He engaged me, as he engaged us all, in serious conversations about what it means to be Catholic, to be Christian, to be engaged with the needs for social justice in the world. While my material and social selves were in abeyance, my spiritual self loomed, waiting to be initiated and invigorated. Brother Peter struck the spark that kindled this awakening. My spiritual self became my driving force.
My life story since 1970 has had many twists and turns like anyone else’s. As my sense of a material and social self returned I experienced normal highs and lows. I made mistakes along the way, but I also made great choices. My life has been anything but a straight line to where I am now, but there has been one rather constant force: my experience of this spiritual self that William James writes about.
I look back at the disaster of my ruptured appendix realizing that it could have led to tragedy, but through my good fortune to have parents who provided loving care and then a wise Theology teacher, it turned out to be a godsend. Those two years of feeling lost were a necessary loss. Without the loss of the material and social selves that I identified most strongly as ME, I’m not certain that I would have stumbled upon my spiritual self. Maybe I would have, but maybe it would have taken much longer. I can’t say for sure.
All of these memories have come back to me this week as a result of several stimuli. First, I’m spending my time this year reading Thoreau, Emerson, and William James. I guess you could say I’m in a “transcendental state of mind.” This past week I’ve been through a few days of deep discomfort from Covid (my first bout with it), though I’m substantially recovered now. Then yesterday while reading I came across this passage in Pico Iyer’s new book The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise.
“The pursuit of happiness made deepest sense, I came to think, when seen in the framework of the Eastern awareness that suffering is the first truth of existence. Adam and Eve had to quit Eden if only so they could learn to resist the lure of serpents. Much as the young prince who became the Buddha had to quit his golden palace in order to confront the facts of sickness and old age and death. A true paradise has meaning only after one has outgrown all notions of perfection and taken the measure of the fallen world.” (italics added)
“Suffering is the first truth of existence;” I learned that at age 13. Then I “had to quit (my) golden palace in order to confront the facts of sickness….and death.” Having taken the measure of my fallen world, I was able to begin to see a true paradise, which turned out to be in service of social justice in this broken world.
It was all a necessary loss. I look back on this period in my life now and smile about it. I’m grateful for it. And I wonder if you, the reader, might be able to look back on a time in your life that was filled with loss as a time that may also have swept away unnecessary layers of self, leaving behind that which was most essential, that which is spiritual and transcends this material world