For the past few months, head and neck pain, the byproduct of too much writing at the computer, has re-surfaced, slowing me down, making my posts infrequent or brief. I have re-learned certain things about pain: that it isolates, cuts me off from communicating as I wish; it is also hard to explain to people, that is, the exact quality of the pain, since I hope that their understanding would somehow alleviate it.
Pain tends to dominate my life, creating anxiety, telling me I am cursed to a life of suffering. I feel sorry for myself. I fear that it will grow progressively worse and my pain will take over my life. Then I realize that I supposedly believe that pain is not the same as suffering (pain is inevitable, suffering is optional). I tell myself that no pain lasts forever while realizing that reason has little effect on feelings like fear. I find myself too preoccupied by something that is not life-threatening but annoying, chronic, seemingly inescapable. I then tell myself that others are worse off, and as I pray for them, I gain some comfort, feeling myself part of a human community in which pain is part of life.
I try various therapies, some helpful, or distract myself with music or movies or anything that will get me away from my desk and computer.
I recently returned to a classic essay by Simone Weil, "The Love of God and Affliction" to see if her notion of affliction would return me to the context of prayer. To see, that is, if pain makes any sense.
Weil can be tough going, adding to my headaches, and I don't understand some of her dense, mystical statements nor do I agree with all of her assumptions. Yet this "secular saint," as she was called, this Jewish philosopher steeped in ancient Greek thought who was drawn to Christ and Catholicism but never could accept baptism, offers a deeply felt understanding of how affliction, when it is consented to in a spirit of love, is different from suffering.
When things go well for us, she says, we don't think of our "almost infinite fragility." But we can be thankful for affliction because it tells us of the fragility of life since it can result in a state of mind "as acute as that of a man facing death at the guillotine." And because our weakness can make possible a union with the crucified Christ, the universal emblem of self-denial.
Awareness of affliction, says Weil, is at the center of Christianity.
(I think of the compassion Pope Francis showed last month to a grossly disfigured man.) Love is the key:
"The man who sees someone in affliction and projects into him his own being brings to birth in him through love, at least for a moment, an existence apart from his affliction." What causes this process is the identity of human beings across times and cultures.
Affliction, like beauty, compels us to ask, Why? Why are things beautiful? Why does my pain, turned into affliction, transform me? He who is capable of listening to the answer to such questions, she says, will hear the answer: Silence. "He who is capable of listening but also of loving hears this silence as the word of God."
I don't know if this brief synopsis of a complex essay makes any sense; reading it again brought me some comfort from an un usual source: a woman who died in 1943 of self-imposed starvation so she could be in solidarity with those in occupied France dying of hunger after a life of intense reflection on affliction and the love of God.