Sitting in a doctor’s office and filling out pages of medical history is not my idea of a good time. But it’s part of the tedious transition to a new doctor when you move to another city, which we’ve recently done. The older you get, the more history there is to report…unless you’re my husband, who is so disgustingly healthy his medical history could be completed on the back of a postcard.
There’s something a bit unnerving about seeing everything that has affected your health catalogued in one place—the surgeries, broken bones, car accidents, meds, traumatic events–rolled out in chronological order. I found myself thinking Who is this person and how did she survive all that?
I had the same thought today when I read that British physicist Stephen Hawking just turned 70. Hawking was diagnosed at 21 with Lou Gehrig’s disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), which typically is fatal in 3-5 years. Today, although Hawking is wheelchair-bound, needs around-the-clock care and relies on a computer and voice synthesizer to speak, on the world stage he continues to contribute brilliantly to his field. Again, I thought How does he do that?
We do it by adapting, changing to reflect whatever is our new reality at any given time. We don’t give it a name. We just do it.
Adaptation is a word more commonly used in nature, where mutation abounds. The veiled chameleon, for example, is a nervous, territorial creature with rotating eyes that act independently of each other: one can focus up and to the right, as the other looks down and to the left—a mutation developed as a hyper-vigilant alert system. Flounder have the ability to change color and blend in with sea gravel on the ocean floor, both to hide from predators and to gain an advantage when stalking other sea creatures for food. In both cases, biologists say, these creatures change not just to accommodate changing circumstances but to survive.
Adaptation in humans is more complicated. We adapt not just to survive or even to overcome past physical challenges or medical traumas. We also adapt to handle the emotional, mental or spiritual repercussions of those past experiences, because cumulatively they affect everything we do right now. Left unattended and unaddressed, they can sabotage our future.
The trick is figuring out how to handle all those collective experiences in a way that allows us to move forward–without becoming hardened, scared people who, like the chameleon or the flounder, go on the attack when threatened or go into hiding as a result of the pain and injustices visited on us by a world that’s not always kind.
Christians deal with the whole adaptation thing on an additional level. A common question among my friends goes something like this: I don’t hold the same point of view on this (insert the issue of your choice) as my friends at work, but I don’t want to be seen as a weirdo. Hey, I’m just a regular guy trying to make it in a tough world, just like they are. But I’ve become their favorite whipping boy because I don’t move in lockstep with the crowd. Do I have to become like them and turn my back on my values to survive in the workplace?
The answer does not lie at either extreme. Adapting does not mean camouflaging who we are until we are unrecognizable or, conversely, hiding out in holy bunkers and lobbing grenades at the world until Christ’s return. Rather, we are invited to steep our hundreds of daily choices in the guidance of scripture, include wise counselors among our companions, and keep our hearts tender toward the inner promptings of the Holy Spirit. When we need to know what to do, the appropriate response will be clear.
Jesus showed us how it’s done. He walked the same dusty roads as everyone else, ate at their tables and looked for ways to bring hope to the brokenhearted, justice to the oppressed, kindness to strangers and love to the unlovable, while never changing who He was at His core. We’re called to do the same.
In other words, the best survival mechanism of all is to align ourselves with a different reality completely–God’s eternal reality, a safe place where eventually we can be who He created us to be, with no need to adapt ever again .