Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Pain, Suffering, and JFK

Reading Chris Matthews' recent book, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero, reveals (at least to me) some new facets of this president's complex character. Along with the glamor and charisma, the womanizing and idealism, and all the rest, there is the skinny, lonely kid who learned early on that he was not likely to live long. He also had to endure amazing coldness on the part of his ambitious family.

His favorite poem: "I Have a Rendzvous with Death." His family and friends are unanimous in saying, "he never complained"--even after multiple hospitalizations for pneumonia, stomach pain, severe back pain and surgeries, injections, Addison's disease, etc.

Instead of suffering, he chose humor, looking for people with whom he could share a laugh. And he turned to reading, creating an inner life based on the old heroic model of what Hemingway called grace under pressure. He was determined to live every minute as if it were his last, no matter what the doctors said, no matter how great the pain.

I suggested earlier that pain is inevitable; suffering is optional. The two terms are often used interchangeably, yet suffering, for me, is the mental anguish and worry that we tend to fall back on when faced with pain. There are times, and JFK is an example, of how we can choose not to suffer.

As I was reading this book, my wife, in another instance of the synchronicity that often occurs in my life, handed me a 2006 article by Margaret Roche Macey, who was then dealing with terminal cancer.

She begins with a reflection on watching late into the night for the moment when darkness comes and overtakes the light: to her surprise, it never actually came. Instead, "the darkness actually grew [since]...it had always been there just waiting for the light to leave..."

She then asks, Do we likewise always carry our death within us rather than wait to meet it in a hospital bed? From this question comes an insight that God (light) is within (inside the darkness), "at the center of all that you most fear."

JFK developed a strong will; Macey developed a deep sense of prayer leading to an insight that death, like darkness, is not an "other" experience--separate from us--but an inseparable part of life and thus not something to be feared.

Both Kennedy and Macey seemed to transcend pain and avoid suffering by turning inward to the Spirit. As I deal with my own (minor) back pain now, these experiences of courage and faith are of inestimable importance, as I know they are to many others.

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