Two nights ago I half-choked.
I was in Quincy dining hall at Harvard, eating a celebratory dinner with two friends. A few minutes into our dinner, as I scarfed down some chicken, I started having trouble breathing. Mildly concerned, I greedily poured water down my throat and waited for the feeling to disappear. Surely, I thought, it was simply a case of the chicken going down the wrong pipe, and I’d feel better any second. Yet the difficulty breathing didn’t go away.
Suddenly I coughed up a pile of phlegm, which coated my chicken with moist yuckiness. By this point my friends were quite concerned and urged me to retreat to the restroom behind the dining hall.
While in the restroom, I continued coughing. Phlegm was everywhere, and I was in pain. This had never happened before. I could still breathe, but it hurt and was difficult. I felt like I was choking, and I wasn’t sure it would end.
At this time, I was gripped by the reality of my own mortality.
When you can’t breathe, you feel helpless. And this time, feeling helpless made me feel stupid. Lately I’d been feeling invincible, cradled as I was within the safe, powerful arms of Harvard University, surrounded by loving friends and over-confident in my own abilities to succeed.
Faith in God had made me confident, too, but it wasn’t only that. Even when I philosophically contemplated God’s non-existence, I still felt optimistic about the future. I’d felt that I didn’t really need God: I was perfectly fine.
All these ideas were squashed to mincemeat as my coughs intensified and I began to eject chicken from my body. This mortal frame, my human machine, was failing me. Who was I, what was I, to have any control over the future, when a hunk of chicken could reduce me to helplessness?
I didn’t think I would really choke to death, but half-choking did make me realize that I was quite unprepared for pain. I couldn’t do anything to make it go away. I couldn’t look to the future hopefully to a time when the pain would be gone. I couldn’t think of Jesus Christ suffering on the cross for me and realize that God would use my pain for good, too. No: it just hurt.
In the midst of my vomiting, as my concerned friends waited outside my bathroom door, I didn’t trust in God. It seemed that my beliefs had been reduced to collapsing theological speculations in the midst of this pain. Partially, this was because my idea of God was sometimes of a daisies-and-roses God that only oversaw good things and only did what I wanted Him to do. When I was hurting, this God couldn’t exist.
Now, intellectually, I know that the God of the Bible isn’t a daisies-and-roses God. In the New Testament, God becomes man and suffers and dies. God sees, and participates in, human pain.
But intellectual knowledge doesn’t always lead to emotional reality, and I’m ashamed and scared by the fact that I couldn’t trust God in the midst of the half-choking. I’m ashamed because the greatest Christians trusted Him in the midst of intense pain, and I didn’t live up to them. Stephen, the martyr of Acts 7, forgave his killers as they stoned him to death. I’m not living up to that.
I’m scared because this makes my Christian faith seem like merely wishful thinking, believing in God only when it’s convenient and things are good. When they aren’t good, I don’t expect Him to do anything.
Anyway, back to the bathroom: after coughing for a while and generating the mound of mucus and chicken that rested in the sink, I told my friends that I really wanted to vomit. If I could only throw up, everything would be better.
And at about that time, I did vomit. Blech. It was glorious.
My breathing was restored, and the three of us trekked to University Health Services to see if we could find out what the heck had happened. Now that I wasn’t half-choking anymore, I felt quite good. I had been scared and hadn’t trusted God, but now I was grateful to be alive. The concerns of homework seemed incredibly silly. And I felt deep love from these two friends.
At the urgent care center, I was told that I was okay now. Most likely, what had happened was that chicken had blocked part of my windpipe for a while. I had still been able to breathe, but with difficulty. I had “half-choked.” In the future, I need to eat more slowly.
When I told this story to a Christian friend last night, and told him that I felt ashamed and scared because I hadn’t trusted God, he comforted me by reminding me of the disciple Peter. Peter had thought he would follow Jesus all the way, never denying his Lord. But then Peter abandoned Jesus when it was rough. But Jesus didn’t show up after he came back to life and go damn Peter to Hell. Even though Peter hadn’t trusted God, God still loved him. And God still loves me!
I felt very happy for the rest of the night. I had been reminded, viscerally, that I cannot trust in earthly life or in myself. It made me recognize what I believe to be a spiritual reality: I am dependent upon God. It’s the reality we celebrate in communion when we feed upon symbols of Christ’s body and bread: he is our source of life. That helped me grasp the importance of living for God and knowing God: it seemed clear that this was how life was supposed to be lived. I can say with confidence that this painful, bad thing ended up being good.
Thank you, God.