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Tuesday, May 10, 2011


This disabling phenomenon we call pain has been my companion for some months now.  The intensity increases each day and it now lives with me, uninvited, as a steady presence.  The culprits are a few degenerative discs in my lower spine, pinching the nerve in my right leg.  I am not alone in this sort of suffering, but knowing the number of sufferers is legion for such a condition does not decrease my own pain.

It began last October: slight discomfort in my back which gradually increased over the ensuing months, inflicting the greatest pain to my right leg.  I stopped walking the dog.  I spent a lot of time sitting.  Visits to the doctors and physical therapy followed.  Pain medicines were available.  Then a cane to assist my walking and relieve pressure on my leg.  No remedies were effective.  A change in my position could bring on a sharp blinding pain.

I ran across a comment in a book review this morning in Christian Century by Janet Potter that struck me:  referring to Kevin Brockmeier's book The Illumination: A Novel,  she notes "His quiet novel suggests that any person, in no matter how much pain, possesses a remarkable capacity to bear it given even the smallest token of hope." (CC, May 3, '11, p. 53).  Characters in the novel discover that their wounds and pains emit a strange silvery glow that illuminates the site. It seems other-worldly.   Hope follows, which then becomes the balm for pain, a token of love from Somewhere.

That small hope for relief comes to me in the appointment I will have soon with a pain management center.  None of the hoped for remedies and resolutions so far have contributed more than temporary relief.  Pain medications, both non-prescription and prescription, proved impotent.  Rearranging my physical position allows for only temporary surcease of the worst pain, and the severest pain comes when I get up during the night.

All these descriptions are not listed to engage sympathy for my discomfort, but a way of defining what goes on with me these days.  That sudden reminder of mortality by way of physical pain can waken one remarkably to the present moment.  It focuses one upon the Now.  Reinhold Niebuhr once noted that pain or illness causes one to be self-absorbed so that whatever else is going on becomes secondary.  I now understand how such a condition is possible.  As someone who has always had great difficulty in directing my attention to the present moment, this experience teaches me something I had not learned very well before.  A second learning experience is what the depths of pain can be like -- the pain that is more than a momentary shock but rather one that is constantly present.  I have witnessed this pain in others, particularly when I served as a chaplain and counselor:  emotional pain as someone grieved the loss of a loved one, and physical pain  in the suffering from a debilitating illness. 

My own pain has been a Teacher as well as an unwanted companion.  Hope lurks in the shadows of a sometimes horrid pain, waiting to be realized in the form of relief and resolution.  I now am able to comprehend what goes on in others who struggle with daily physical and emotional pain even though I do not know fully the details of that suffering.  Perhaps one reason we experience pain, other than to serve as our warning system, is to show our relationship and connection to created life of all sorts, human and all creatures.

The suffering of victims of war, of natural and unnatural catastrophes, of hunger and disease, is a universal phenomenon from which none is spared.  When an animal is abused, there is suffering.  When a prisoner is tortured by a cruel system, there is suffering. When any experience injustice or inequality, there is suffering.  When life seems to offer no respite or hope, there is suffering.

So we share this common bond that assures us no living creature is free from pain and suffering.  What distinguishes us as human beings is how we deal with those situations.  Compassion trumps neglect.  We are here for our brief time on a tiny speck in the universe, yet our very self is part of what is greater than even our imaginations.  Understanding that may not lessen my momentary pain but it speaks of the larger perspective, and offers another hope.

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