It’s a Real Pain by George Merrill


I have been thinking about that day I walked to my mailbox. Iwrote about it recently. I called it ‘Back Talk.” I was fussingabout unruly back pain that returned with a vengeance

I’d found consolation in my neighbors that day, one of which turned out to be a turtle. If my pain made me feel useless, thisturtle offered me an occasion to feel helpful. Another ‘neighbor’ was a conifer tree. Its bark enthralled me enough so for a moment I hugged it. It was my first hug . . . of a tree, that is. I needed to feel close. It worked. Then there was a plain looking butterfly which my presence wasn’t able to scare off. That made me feel, in my unhappy state, that I was still an easy guy to hang out with.

In short, as awareness of the natural world impinged on me, my pain mitigated significantly, at least for a time.

Reassurance is helpful when you’re not feeling good. Never be fussy about where it comes from.

This led me to thinking about comfort and solace amidst suffering. What graces are always available to us in times of woe? There are two that are well established and verifiable: family and friends. Personal presence is a healing and consoling mechanism. There is a power to presence; just showing up can be healing. But what about nature, the kind always surrounding us; the nature still remaining of the created world that we have not yet destroyed?  Its mantel is woven from the fabric of our own lives. Nature’s got to be more than just a prop, some stage dressing for showcasing ‘man’.  We’re part of the tapestry, threads in the fabric. What about the natural world whose existence is inextricably bound to you and to me?

In my personal struggle with pain, recently it’s been with the more aggressive kind. It seizes my attention. Neurological pain has a way of making its presence known by doing what it does best; striking like lightening, demanding my attention and then sustaining it by making me unable to think about anything else.

That’s when I’ve noticed the healing dimension of the natural world becomes significant. It, too, has a way of making its presence known, not aggressively, but subtly, the way we notice sounds carried great distances over water.

The sounds are hard to distinguish at first. I listen more intently. The sounds begin taking on audible formsperhaps words, tones or leaves rustling. It might be twittering (the bird or bugkinds). It can be the gurgling of small brooks or the cascade of breaking waves on a beach. It might seem like music.

This phenomenon occurs visually, too. Some motion may arrest my attention. I may notice how the breezes make the crowns ofthe conifers wag and sway in broad swaths across the sky, as if singing jubilantly. In any case my attention is engaged, but not invasively as pain does, but more like hearing a whisper in a crowd; it invites my attention irresistibly, but not doesn’tdemand it.

Nature is always there; pain just makes her hard to heed.

Psycho-spiritual pain is equally as debilitating. It arrives more insidiously; not usually sharp and piercing. Psycho-spiritual painpermeates our environment the way atmospheric inversions trap smog, keeping it close to the ground. In conditions like that, just breathing the surrounding milieu feels like suffocation. I’ve heard this psychospiritual pain described as a kind of heaviness that sets in after the nightly news is over.

Pain performs a critical function. Truth be told, none of us willget through life without pain. Its absence is not always desirable. Take the problem of leprosy; it’s lethal because the limbs it is destroying register no pain at all. Pain signals that something is wrong and needs our attention. Without pain, we’re left unawareand vulnerable. This is the problem with insidious cancers and strokes that give us no clue they’re about to do us mischief.

So, I cannot reasonably protest pain.  I can only complain about my own even though it makes me look like a wuss.

My pain behaves like guerilla fighters concealed in my neural transmitters or like snipers hiding in bushes. After making that fatal decision to move my butt this way or that, or suddenlybend forward backward, the snipers open fire on me. In the case of lower back pain, most rounds hit me below the belt. A few strays will land above it along the spine.

Do I feel sorry for myself? You bet. Sometimes I shake my fist against the universe long enough to blow off steam and let God know I’m not a happy camper. I don’t worry about God; he has a thick skin and, since the creation of Adam and Eve, has taken more heat from his children than hell generates, or is ever able to. The only thing my snit earns me is more spasms along my back. Eventually I calm down enough to be, if not happy, at least reflective. In reflecting on my misadventures in personal pain management I’ve had some recurring thoughts. Pain is, after all,part of being human. It goes with the territory and it wears a million different hats, customizing itself to individual circumstances.

Do I know what pain others are suffering?  The more humanely we treat our own suffering, we will treat others accordingly.Personal suffering can leave us angry. I can’t really say I know what others are suffering. That kind of knowing is best understood from the inside out. Even though I may have walked in the same moccasins, and since there are no two feet exactly alike, the suffering I incur has its own personalized contours. With regard to suffering, I can be compassionate, and be moved to help in some way, but can only imagine what others are goingthrough.

But, enough about me.

The matter of pain goes far beyond my aching back. St. Paul makes a remarkable statement about suffering, not only human but global. He sees both as inextricably connected. His comment suggests that human suffering is linked to nature’s. Both visibly bear the scars from the pain we have inflicted on one another and have visited on our sacred spaces, specifically, the streams, the air and forests of our planet. Living life informed by the bankrupt vision of consumerism, we behave like the malignant cells that can’t seem to do other than consume the body on which they depend. In his letter to the Romans, Paul puts it this way:

For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth together until now. And not only they, but ourselves also . . . even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body

Paul understood the church to function like a human body, cooperatively, and that if one body part presumed to be better than another, it was talking nonsense. Each has its place and functions for the good of the whole.

As of the moment, I pray that my back would heed St. Paul’s counsel and start doing what it’s supposed to; helping the rest of me function properly. After all, an entire body gets up and goes best when its chassis is sufficiently lubricated and well in place.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

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