I recently received an e-mail from an editor friend making me a generous offer for my writing.
It was so generous, I was ecstatic. I jumped about the room excited over the prospects of leaving my “day job” to become a full-time writer. I imagined myself becoming the next American Idol with my rendition of David Allen Coe’s “Take This Job And Shove It.”
I called friends and family. I put them on speakerphone. I started dancing with that motion you make as if you’re doing a two-handed stir of a big old pot while simultaneously yelling “show me the money.”
Turns out, I was stirring a pot all right — a pot of big-headed pride.
After reading the e-mail for the 10th time, I realized my editor friend was only making a one-time offer for a single article. While the offer was respectable, it wouldn’t make a monthly payment on a Maserati.
I was disappointed and thought about my foolish ways throughout the next day. I was even thinking about them as I encountered a patient in our hospital lobby. The woman asked if we might talk as we walked into the hospital driveway.
Shaken and disheveled, she stopped in the driveway and held her focus on the hospital planter that stood just below a reflective “No Smoking” sign.
“There’s no justice,” she said as she clicked her lighter and lit the cigarette she had been concealing in her cupped hand. At 50 years old, the patient was asking if the doctors could perhaps repeat her tests so they could tell this ex-addict that the death sentence they pronounced “pancreatic cancer” wasn’t real.
“It sounds real,” I told her.
Her sobbing reverberated in the covered driveway.
“It sounds like the only choice you have is how you’re going to make peace with this diagnosis during your remaining six months.”
She nodded. And not knowing what else to say, I let the wind and rain force a convenient conclusion to our visit.
Back at the nurse’s station, I charted my visit and reflected on my embarrassment from my trivial disappointment.
Nevertheless, the patient and I shared some similarities. We were hoping to create our own reality. She wanted a place where her cancer wouldn’t be real, and I wanted a place where I would become a household name.
Later that night, I opened an e-mail from Tamara Chin, a friend who trained with me as a hospital chaplain. She was responding to the e-mail I had sent her, titled: “Too good to be true!”
“Don’t let the money be the measure of who you are!” she wrote. “You are a writer, be it for $50 or $500. Some wouldn’t consider the label of writer real even for $5,000 — some would consider it real at just $5.
“It’s not the amount,” she concluded, “it’s the attachment or the value we give to it.”
Tamara’s words gave me new encouragement, not only for myself but to speak some truth to this struggling patient.
The next day, I stopped by the woman’s room.
Without retelling my trivial story, I managed to reframe Tamara’s words.
“Don’t let the limited amount of days you have become the measure of who you are. You are God’s child. Six months doesn’t detract the truth from that. Be it 50 years or 100 years.”
The woman had been counting her days. I had been counting my money. Both of us had been tempted to let those numbers define us. We had forgotten that only God can make the definitions.