Some months ago, a daughter-in-law invited me to accompany her and two of their three daughters to the Primary Children’s Outpatient Hospital for a long morning of appointments for their five-year-old middle girl. That spirited little lady had been born with spina bifida. The whole family and teams of able doctors have been rallying ever since her birth that December morning five years ago to assure that young Emma has as full and uncompromised a life as possible.
Emma and her mother have been spending half a day every few months for several years with other pediatric spina bifida patients to enable a grand parade of assorted doctors to move individually and efficiently from one examination room and patient to the next. The competent professionals systematically check each of the young patients and make recommendations for their ongoing care. Emma and her committed parents have become experts at navigating the ever-changing landscape of Emma’s needs. For example, at one point, the distance from the parking garage to the examination room became too far for Emma to walk without being carried or strolled. Her mom had a new baby in tow, and Emma valued her ownership over her personal mobility, so they found a scooter that Emma could manage independently. She was delighted to be liberated to lead the charge and show the way.
Emma was not thrilled by the barrage of medical professionals that entered her assigned room that day and proceeded to accumulate essential data by listening to her heart, flexing her feet, taking her blood pressure, asking her questions, and making all kinds of other impositions. But that little patient was not willing to simply resign herself to what felt like a total loss of dignity. Before the first doctor arrived, she unzipped her pink backpack and carefully removed her very convincing doctor’s outfit, complete with toy medical instruments and accessories. She had packed it all specially to arm herself for the occasion.
When the first professional entered her room, she was ready to define the terms of their engagement. She was resigned to her obligation to be a patient, but she was determined to identify herself as a doctor, too. When each professional finished his tasks, she asked him to sit down while, using her toy medical instruments, she did to him something of what he had done to her. Those charmed doctors smiled with admiring grace as that five-year-old girl redefined the interaction to include prerogative for her, too. Without any resistance or tantrum, she was determined to be a victor and not a victim. She adjusted bravely to her obligation as a patient, even as she claimed and defined her place in the story as a doctor too.
A few months later, I again joined Emma and her mother at an appointment at Shriner’s Hospital in Salt Lake City for Emma to be evaluated by an impressive team of pediatric orthopedic surgeons. They concluded that it would be in Emma’s best interest to have casts put on both legs to straighten her feet. Emma had endured casts before, so she knew the clumsy discomfort those restrictions implied. She also knew that the decision had been made. With both resignation and initiative beyond her years, she responded to the pronouncement with a furrowed brow and a determined demand. She was ready for the casts, but it was December, and Christmas was coming. The casts absolutely needed to be decorated to meet the season. She insisted that one must be blue with a green Christmas tree with pink ornaments and a yellow star, and the other needed to be red and white spiral striped like a candy cane. That trio of female orthopedists took her request/demand very seriously. They conferred about the artistry of what she envisioned and proceeded to work with her to fashion the perfect leg accessories for her holiday. Emma was satisfied. She stiff leggedly left that office smiling and with her head held high. Again, she had found a way to feel victorious rather than victimized.
Another grandchild, a bonus grandson, taught the same lesson of choosing victory over victimhood as he adjusted with courage and optimism to his bonus mom when our daughter married his father after his wife had passed away. We had the pleasure of being invited to join the newly formed family of five teenaged boys at their favorite place: Harry Potter Land in Florida. Fourteen-year-old Joseph flaunted a bright red t-shirt with a quotation that became a theme for us all. It read: “Happiness can be found in even the darkest places if you turn the light on.” Joseph had chosen to turn the light of initiative and imagination on and press forward to conquer his new circumstances rather than be victimized by them.
A young mom chose the same when she refused to be paralyzed by the sadness she had felt every year at Thanksgiving time when she sent her children to visit their father, her previous husband. It occurred to her that there was nothing sacred about celebrating Thanksgiving the last Thursday of November. With that expanded mindset, she crossed out Thanksgiving as it was printed on her calendar and rescheduled it several days earlier in November. Every year since that breakthrough year, that family has counted their blessings and eaten turkey with all the trimmings together before the children left. Victors not victims.
I have hanging on my bedroom wall a small plaque reminding me in a clever, tongue-in-cheek way of the power and privilege of personal initiative, even as it asserts the inevitability of imperfect circumstances. In somewhat ostentatious gold letters it reads: “The secret of life is not in holding good cards, but in playing a poor hand well.” Life’s imperfections are certainly more demanding and important than a card game, but the message is apt. There are admittedly so many mortal circumstances that vex and challenge us, but we have been assured doctrinally that we are “free to choose captivity and death… and be miserable… or choose eternal life,” which promise I would suggest includes personal prerogative and affirmative action. With the help of some imagination and significant inspiration, we can choose joyful victory over resigned victimhood.
Every Easter Sunday as a young girl, I attended the First Presbyterian Church with my Presbyterian father and my grandparents. I’ll never forget a particularly powerful sermon delivered by the minister there one Easter morning. Characteristic of call and response worship, the minister instructed us to respond to his sermon in unison as a congregation every time he asked, “Who won?” We were asked to reply with a loud and emphatic, “We won!” He proceeded to recall the details of the final week of the Savior’s life. When he said, “Jesus was unjustly accused, but who won?” we responded, “We won!” When he said, “Jesus was nailed to a cross, but who won?” we again responded, “We won!” The minister continued. “When Jesus died and was laid in the tomb, who won?” We said again, “We won!” Then finally, “When Jesus rose from the dead to triumph over death and hell, who won?” We fairly shouted, altogether, “We won!” And I knew it was true. We did win. We can win. We do win. With Him, we are able to choose to be the victors, now and forevermore.
A friend shared an experience that made me both chuckle and think. She had landed at an unfamiliar airport and made her way to the place she was expecting to meet an Uber driver to transport her to her hotel. Having found the appointed meeting place, she glanced at her phone and fairly gasped when she read, “Jesus is coming.” And then just a moment later, “Jesus is here.” Obviously, her Uber driver was a Latino named Jesus, but the message caught her by surprise and triggered in her a hopeful, gasping response reflective of her religious certainty. Jesus truly will come. And in fact, He is here. He arrived as a baby centuries ago. He will arrive as a King sometime in the future. And He is here in meaningful ways now and perpetually for those who choose to welcome Him in. Whatever our age, whatever out circumstances, Jesus came and is here to save us from victimhood, and to assure us meaningful, lasting victories. “Thanks be to God, which giveth the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthiuans 15:57). We were sent to be, with His help and the courageous, imaginative exercise of our own agency, victors not victims – now, always, forever.