Could You Be Happy With ALS?

Nancy Perry Graham of AARP wrote a few months ago about sustaining happiness in middle and late adulthood.  She asked three middle-aged or elderly friends who were clearly happy with life what each though was responsible for their positive mood.  As she notes, a charmed life is not necessary for such well-being, since one of the three had been diagnosed in the past year with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also called Lou Gehrig’s disease.  I was particularly interested in that person’s story.  He is John Curran, age 59, a news director for Bloomberg, and remained happy even after receiving the diagnosis.  He told Graham that, in the 7 months since being diagnosed, he has been sustained by a loving family, a supportive church, faith in the afterlife, and good health insurance.  He added the following:

“At its core, my happiness rests on a spiritual life, a sense of purpose and — oh, yes — a sense of humor. In this life, where beauty fades, wealth wreaks more havoc than happiness and death awaits us all, if you can’t laugh about the journey’s ups and downs, you’ll fret. And who wants to worry?”

It is wonderful that Mr. Curran has both ample support in this life and faith for the next.  I’m impressed by his equanimity.   He may not be far along in the progression of the disease, though; how might he be affected when he becomes unable to dress and feed himself?  Do even persons of deep faith become despondent at that point?

Ed Dobson.  Photo: Mlive

Ed Dobson. Photo: Mlive

I found information pertinent to that question by reading about another person of faith who has ALS, namely Ed Dobson, former pastor of Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan (which is the church that my brother attends).  Dobson was diagnosed with ALS a dozen years ago, and he is now quite disabled by it.  As reported by Charley Horney in The Grand Rapids Press, Dobson admits that “waiting on the Lord can be a challenge.”  He adds, though, “But this one thing I know: God has brought me this far. . . The God who brought me this far will deal with today and tomorrow. So I can rest in his coming into my life to rearrange my furniture.”

Besides maintaining a strong faith, Dobson is comforted by positive consequences of his suffering.  In a brief 2012 article in Christianity Today, Dobson wrote: “I would exchange all the life lessons and opportunities to be healthy again.”  Nonetheless, he believes that “my ALS has been used by God to accomplish wonderful things for the kingdom, where even the worst suffering opened the doors to a new heavens and earth.”  Maybe he isn’t as happy as he might have been without ALS, but he believes strongly that God has used the disease to advance the heavenly kingdom.  Dobson sees his life as having a purpose, and if anything ALS has heightened, not detracted from, his sense of purpose.

Would my faith withstand receiving a serious medical diagnosis?  Would I have anything like the serenity that Curran and Dobson both seem to have?  It hasn’t happened to me, so I don’t know.  It’s nice to realize that even the worst medical prognosis doesn’t have to lead to misery and despair, though.   Curran and Dobson serve as reminders of how essential faith and family are when going through the valley of the shadow of death.

About Bob Ritzema

I am a fourth-generation American of Dutch ancestry and am trained as a clinical psychologist. In 2012, I retired from Methodist University in North Carolina to return to . Michigan to help family, and, in 2023, I started again with a move to Milwaukee to be near my children. I maintain a part-time therapy practice. I can be reached at
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