Spills

In August 2000 I had a catastrophic bicycle accident (see I Lost My Marbles on the Mohawk Trail). I was months later diagnosed with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) that eventually led to my early retirement on disability. I was rummaging around in the files and found this piece I wrote for Colleague after the crash. It’s called Spills:

In the movie Regarding Henry, the main character, Henry, who is played by Harrison Ford, is a cutthroat New York lawyer and general all–around stinker. He’s cheating on his wife with someone at work, his business ethics are shaky at best, and he’s a merciless martinet with his young daughter. When she spills her juice at the table he flies off the handle at her. But Henry’s life changes when he goes out for cigarettes to the corner store and interrupts a robbery. The nervous robber shoots him in the head with a Saturday Night Special and Henry fights for life and later, for recovery to his old life. He’s also lost his memory and had a personality change. At his first meal at home after his discharge from rehab his daughter again spills her juice, and she immediately recoils in anticipation of his outburst. “That’s alright, honey,” her father tells her, “I do it all the time.” Whereupon Henry knocks over his own glass: “See!”
When my kids were toddlers such spills were commonplace at our table, and we did our best to be patient. “Don’t cry over spilled milk” is part of every parent’s lexicon. The word spill means “to cause or allow (a substance) to run or fall out of a container.” By extension it came to mean to fall. Last summer I had a spill and went over the handlebars of my road bicycle. As a result of that spill, I separated my right shoulder, broke a rib, and sustained a traumatic brain injury that left my wits addled for a number of months. Because of my separated shoulder the first few times I tried to pour juice or put milk on my cereal I spilled it all over the kitchen counter. It gave me new empathy with what my children were facing as toddlers.
Life is a series of spills. Like Henry, we do it all the time. We run or fall out of our container, and it makes a mess that we then have to clean up or fix. The conventional wisdom is to not cry over spilled milk, and to pick yourself up after a spill, and I think from a human point of view that is exactly what one should do. So I plan to get back on my bicycle as soon as it, and I, are ready, whenever that is.
But from another point of view perhaps we should cry over our spills, if we can see in them the larger spilled-ness of our lives. The Christian faith knows that we humans are never quite what God intended us to be. To carry our earlier image of the spilled life, we have fallen outside our containers. We may not be empty, but we are not as full as God wants us to be. Ironically, in Christian theology we call this “the fall” and it is not just about our ancestral relatives in the Garden of Eden, but a truth about human life in general. We are perennially and constitutionally estranged from God, from one another, and from our natural surroundings. As one of our prayers says, “we worship ourselves and the things we have made.”
And so human life is a series of spills and perhaps God does cry over our spills, not over spilled milk, but the kind of wasteful spills that we know, relationships gone sour, talent squandered, potential wasted and the fearsome losses of war. The Christian answer is not then just to pick yourself up, because the truth is we can’t pick ourselves up. There are spills you can fix, be they milk on the counter, or the bruises and fractures of a fall from a bike, but there are spills from which we never recover.
The fixing must come from God’s side. And the good news we preach is that God does this. God not only cries over our spills, he wants to fill us so that we are whole again. At baptism we pour water into the font and the child is washed and cleansed as a sign and seal of the new life that God promises to pour out to us. And one of the things we are demonstrating when we participate in that symbolic action is this: that although the child is herself a miracle, a gift of God, she will need the gifts God gives to have the new life God wants for her. At the Lord’s Supper we take the cup and fill it and recite the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, “Drink this all of you, it is my blood poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins.”
We are close to the heart of things in these gestures, when we can realize that in Christ God pours out his own life, that we might have life, and have it fully. That’s a great paradox: human life spills, but God fills, spilling his life so that we might have life and have it in abundance; giving us his life-giving Spirit even as we fall out of our containers and face the potential and sometimes very real emptiness of being human.
We can’t fill our own containers, only God can do that. He’s made us to be filled, and “our hearts are restless until we find rest in Thee,” until we realize we cannot do it ourselves, only God can. Henry only becomes lovable when he accepts his newfound vulnerability. It’s a hard lesson. Some of us must learn it again and again. And it goes clean contrary to the conventional wisdom of the world, which is that to win you must be strong and tough and self-sufficient, needing nothing or no one. But in fact we do need others and we do need God. Because life is a series of spills, and in them God gives us opportunity to come to terms with our need for him, and to accept the life he gives us as a gift, when we stop trying to manufacture life for ourselves without him. So don’t worry so much about your everyday spills. They are part of life. Hey, I do it all the time.

 

Mind Your Head

Natasha’s Richardson’s shocking death from a head injury last week after what seemed like a minor fall on the bunny slope of a Canadian ski resort highlights how fragile our brains can be.

I have a traumatic brain injury (TBI) that I acquired in a catastrophic cycling accident in 2000, which is why I am the retired pastor who ruminates and not the still active pastor too busy to blog.  I wrote a memoir of my crash called “I Lost My Marbles on the Mohawk Trail.”

Unlike Richardson I was wearing a helmet when I fell, which may have saved my life.  Dr. Robert Cantu, a director of the Neurological Sports injury Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, is quoted in yesterday’s New York Times, “Had she (Richardson) been wearing a helmet she would have been alive.”   Cantu said,  “Helmets, although they do not prevent concussion, have a virtually 100 percent record of preventing skull fractures.”

So wearing a helmet is a good investment in your health.  I ride on our local bike path, the Ashuwilticook Rail Trail , quite frequently, and am amazed at how many people ride bicycles without wearing a helmet.  Here in Massachusetts there is  a law that children must wear them, but I see mom and dad helmet-less while the kids wear them, which sends the message that helmets are for kids.  It’s like the parents who drop the kids off for Sunday School but don’t go to church.  Children get the message.  And people have told me they don’t wear one because they are only on the trail and don’t go very fast,  but it only takes a minor bump to do the damage, as Richardson’s injury shows.

And though a helmet can’t guarantee that you won’t sustain a TBI, it will likely lessen the impact and resulting damage and disability.  We are seeing thousands of cases of TBI from troops returning from Iraq, and the human and social cost of these injuries is profound.  TBIs can cause memory loss, focus and attention issues, personality changes, chronic tiredness, severe depression, inability to multitask, sleep problems, and many social problems.   A psychiatrist who fell from a ladder and hit his head had to quit his practice.  He told me that having a brain injury is “an exercise in patience and humility.”  I have found that to be true.

So do what you can to avoid getting a TBI.  If you ride or ski or participate in any sport where your head is at risk, do yourself and those you love a favor.  Wear a helmet.