The Recovery Room

By Tommy Airey

After a thirty-month delay, I finally went in for hernia surgery last week. Lindsay hauled me over to the hospital in Grosse Pointe, Michigan – Detroit’s eastern adjacent suburb. As soon as we crossed Alter Road, everything changed. The mourning turned into mansions. Dr. King gave a speech in the high school gym in Grosse Pointe three weeks before he was assassinated. He talked about the two Americas. Those who grow up in the sunlight of opportunity – and those barely surviving in the fatigue of despair. During the speech, he was shouted down – several times – by white people who did not appreciate some outsider telling them that racism was still a real thing.

The day before my surgery, I drove to the lab in Grosse Pointe to get my pre-surgery blood screening. A Black woman was working the front desk. While I was waiting, an unmasked white man in his seventies walked in asking where to sign in. She pointed to the table and told him he needed to put on a face covering. He looked at me and shook his head, muttering that he had one in his bag. I stared him down. He didn’t sign in. When he found his seat across the room, he looked at me again. I just stared back. We both grew up in the sunlight of opportunity, but I wanted him to know that I would not be signing off on his supremacy story.

Across Jefferson Boulevard from the hospital, the yards of the mansions are lined with election signs promoting the GOP candidate for Secretary of State who got her masters degree in Christian Apologetics from BIOLA and is adamant the 2020 election was stolen. Many signs say, “Vote No on Prop 3,” the reproductive justice measure that got more signatures than any initiative in Michigan history. When we arrived at the hospital on the morning of my surgery, everything was quick and convenient. Parking spaces were abundant and free-of-charge. It was a close walk to the lobby. The surgery wing was a well-oiled machine. I did not wait long to get in.

When I got to my room, I stripped down and strapped on my awkward-fitting gown and blue socks. I was comfortably propped up on the bed for twenty minutes, sitting in silence without my phone or book or anything else to distract me. I prayed for people in my life struggling with relationships, for those losing parents, for those with health challenges, for those discerning big moves. I was feeling some fear and anxiety about my upcoming recovery. No weights or running for at least a month! I am kind of addicted to endorphins. I also have issues with body image, an obsession with getting in physical shape, idealized by media outlets, that has consistently contributed to a more staged masculinity.

Four nurses showed up to ask a few final questions about allergies and what I ate and drink the last 12 hours. They took my temperature, pulse and blood pressure one more time. They rolled me over to the operating room and shimmied me on to the table. I looked at the clock. It was 10:28am. I don’t remember anything after that. I woke up in a blurry haze daze of anesthesia around 1pm. I was wearing an oxygen mask. I could see that there was something resembling a nurse typing on a computer ten feet to the right of me.

I immediately thought about the text exchange I had with psychotherapist and theologian Dr. Bruce Rogers-Vaughn about a year ago. In the classroom and counseling sessions, Bruce is focused on the fact that we are living out a neoliberal nightmare, sleep-walking through daily routines, lulled into complacency by the comforting and distracting lullabies of late-stage capitalism. The soul goal is to resist the rules of the game, not adapt to them. Bruce’s image for this kind of post-capitalist spiritual care is the recovery room where we collectively gather to let the anesthesia of the familiar wear off. Only then will the ties that bind us become clear.

Bruce says that the horror of the neoliberal age is that we are not horrified. We are zombies, numbed by social media newsfeeds and shame-based narratives pitching profit, perfectionism, personal responsibility, self-promotion and competition. Not just from corporate-funded media outlets and both corporate-funded political parties, but also from corporate-funded churches and corporate-funded foundations and corporate-funded universities and corporate-funded hospitals too.

Supremacy stories like capitalism con us into believing we are autonomous individuals, on our own in this world, hustling hard to earn our ranking on the human hierarchy of value. This incessant scripting counterfeits our soul reality. It says we are separate and segregated, when we are actually connected to a web of belonging. Like MLK said in his Grosse Pointe speech: we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. Every Indigenous culture on the planet knows this. As Carl Jung said, we live in soul; soul does not live in us.

Soul is the fabric that binds every living being together. But the fabric is frayed – like a cultural hernia – and we feel it. Bruce calls this “third-order suffering.” We are weighed down by profound despair, paralyzing anxiety and perpetual disempowerment because our souls are entangled with an economy built on exploitation, exclusion and extraction. To add insult to injury, capitalism teaches us to blame ourselves for our lack of well-being. Bruce is adamant that the source of our personal distress is in the social and political environment, not the individual. We can only summon the capacity to call out this bullshit if we unplug ourselves from the neoliberal drip.

Capitalism is the air we breathe – and it is killing us. Our healing demands that we deal with this elephant in the room – and then start with Something else. Something that does not base value, worth or identity on what we do or how much we have or who we know or where our bodies bulge. This Something else slows down (instead of working to capacity), grieves (instead of feeling guilty), falls in love with those on the other side of Alter Road (instead of following a formula for success) and conspires with others (instead of striving individually). Our models are the minority reports and dissenting opinions, the maroons dismissed by the slumbering masses as impractical, unrealistic or uncooperative. Our post-capitalist posture will never be popular. However, it will be compelling, aligned with ancient wisdom that’s never been proven wrong: what do they profit if they gain the world and forfeit their soul?

*          *          *

I was still loopy when they rolled me into what they called the second recovery room. Nurse Anna was overwhelmed and verbally processing everything. She asked what I did for a living. When I told her that I used to be a high-school teacher, she said that she believes that we need to get God back in the classroom. “You know,” she proclaimed, “just like it says in the pledge of allegiance: one nation under God!” Nurse Anna’s top-down god was created in the image of the white power structure to sanctify racial capitalism. This Great White Father secures success for some, scarcity for many others. In the recovery room, we wake-up to a higher Power who hums on open-heartedness, humility, steadfast love and a ruthless solidarity with those who live on the other side of Alter Road. This Power does not wear king’s robes, as Rilke wrote, but is more like a mist that brings forth the morning.

At 5am on the morning of my surgery, I sipped on a dark roast and picked up where I left off the day before in the Gospel of Mark. It was the eccentric episode in chapter eight where Jesus heals the blind man from Bethsaida by putting saliva in his eyes. After he spit-shined the blind man, Jesus asked him if he could see anything. The blind man said that he could see people, but they looked like trees walking around. I bet they looked just like the doctors and nurses roaming around my recovery room in Grosse Pointe. Jesus had to heal him again. Like the blind man from Bethsaida, our post-capitalist healing will come in messy stages too.

The day after my surgery, I woke up to the first foggy morning of the Fall in Detroit. We are in a fog, bracing ourselves for the outcome of another corporate-funded election. After we vote, no matter what happens, let’s get our asses to the recovery room and allow this anesthesia to wear off. So we can see what’s oppressing us. So we can see what’s coming next. So we can conspire for Something else. Our vision will be blurred, but hope will break through the haze. Because we have each other.

Tommy Airey is a post-Evangelical pastor and the author of Descending Like a Dove: Adventures in Decolonizing Evangelical Christianity (2018). He roasts his own coffee, roots for the Kansas Jayhawks and rests his head in Detroit, Michigan with his partner Lindsay. He is currently working on his second book Conspiracy: A Biblical Spirituality for Breaking Rank. Tommy consistently posts shorter pieces to his blog Easy Yolk.

2 thoughts on “The Recovery Room

  1. Chris

    “Like” as in actual, active ‘got-something-out-of’, not just reflexively ‘click on heart icon’ … nice piece Tommy!

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