03 February 2011

Reading "The Pain Chronicles" - One

NOTE:  I am not writing this series of posts about Melanie Thernstrom's The Pain Chronicles as a book review.  I do highly recommend this book for anyone who is suffering pain or close to a pain sufferer, but I am not trying to make the case for that.  It's really a matter of inspiration: a book written by a chronic pain sufferer would naturally hold interest for me, and the section on religions and pain gave me much to ponder in relation to this blog.


"I felt diminished - degraded, even, by pain - not only physically but spiritually as well." (The Pain Chronicles, page 75)

I know what she means: even after six years of living with and learning from migraine pain on both the physical and spiritual levels, I found myself feeling like a failure recently when - after two months on a very restrictive diet - the migraines were still coming regularly and, often, fiercely.  "Other people say they felt better after two weeks on this diet!  What's wrong with me?"   It helped when my friend Juliana read to me some reviews of the book in which I found the regimen, and it was clear that many migraineurs are disillusioned to the point of verbal vitriol about the good doctor and his diet.

The diet hadn't (yet?) worked for me.  That did not make me a failure, and part of me understood this even as I felt myself sinking into depression and onto the pity pot.  But that is one of the tricky things about chronic pain: we lose perspective in its clutches, we find ourselves degraded by it.  Our lives are restricted by it, we become defined by it, we live through many losses because of it.  How, then, to work with the diminishment on the spiritual and physical planes?  How to find redemption in this purgatory that seems to consign us to the outer edges of life?

However far we may have come in accepting, allowing, and learning from pain, the daily reminders sting none the less.  The radio station is giving away tickets to Washington Opera's "Madama Butterfly" and I listen intently for details until I remember that I haven't attended concerts in years: I don't know in advance whether I will feel well enough to attend a performance on any given night.  Melanie Thernstrom describes wanting to participate in a canoe trip, adamantly insisting that she can do it, despite the facts that she has never paddled a canoe and the pain in her neck, which radiates down her arm, would sideline her before she even began.

Our minds don't want to remember we have pain.  When circumstances and our own desires force us to remember, it hurts.

I am not now and will never be like the saints, those of the beatific countenance as the martyring flames devour them.  The concept of choosing martyrdom, which Thernstrom also discusses, repulses me because I simply cannot believe that God can desire for us or lead us into such annihilating pain. I do not accept the migraines as a punishment that will teach me a lesson, or as a sanctifying alchemy for my soul's ultimate benefit.

However.  All that being said, I do know and I have experienced the spiritual and physical benefits of choosing to allow the pain: to resist fighting it, to accept it as a reality over which I have only limited control, to view it as a life circumstance that, albeit difficult, can serve to break me open to the Light.  Perhaps it seems a negligible distinction, but to me it is a very important one.  It's a matter of spiritual perspective: I have no need to find a reason for the pain.  Instead, I find a teacher in the pain.

Pain as instructor, not as theological discourse.

In the case of the opera tickets, the stinging disappointment as I realized the impracticability of obtaining a ticket made for a difficult moment or two.  At such moments, my next thought is never something like, "God must not want me to go," or "There's a good reason for this."   That kind of thinking is counterproductive at least in part because thinking - with its circular, repetitive character - simply doesn't help.  What helps is breathing (three long, slow, deep breaths) along with a quietly inward focus learned through deep meditation and centering prayer.

In a few moments, I am calmer, more accepting of my reality in the moment.  The disappointment is still real, I do not deny that.  The wish to be able to attend the opera stays with me, I do not force it away.  But the centering practice connects me with a spiritual spaciousness that is its own reward, so wonderfully different is it than the narrowly claustrophobic confines of my thinking mind.

The practice of three slow breaths with an inner focus has come from years of meditation, Christian centering prayer, Buddhist meditation, and learning from Eastern religions.  My pain has become easier to bear - I do not say lessened - due to the age-old wisdom of the world's spiritual masters and mistresses.  When a migraine or a disappointment due to chronic pain enter my reality, I am grateful for access to a broader and deeper, calmer and lovelier place.  In this, I am blessed.

That is not to say that I wouldn't, given half a chance, give up the darned migraines in a heart's beat.

I would love to hear from you.  Use the Comment box, below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com.


  1. You touch on one of the key conclusions I've reached in studying and pondering the intersection between disability/pain and faith. Disability and pain can open new truths to us and help us to grow. But recognizing that fact is not synonymous with saying, "God gave me this disability/pain so I would learn something." I always say that, while I will never believe that God intended my physical suffering so I would learn something, I can still be grateful that I've ended up learning something through it.

    And I too, would give up the disability and pain in a heartbeat if given the choice.

  2. Enjoying your discussion of this wonderful book - it completely changed my perspective on my chronic pain. Thank you for sharing! laborpain.wordpress.com