During the past year I have been wrestling with pain in two areas of my body: head (migraine headaches) and knee. Extensive walking is not easy, and I am easily discouraged, fearing that I will simply get worse and praying for an unlikely cure.
Luckily, I have been talking to a compassionate friend, a retired doctor, who has some similar health challenges, and we share the ups and downs of getting older. I quote to him ideas from Shakespeare (King Lear, especially) about the inevitability of pain as part of the human condition; and he, having seen great pain in his medical practice and having known spiritual pain from family members who underwent the horrors of the Holocaust, shares wisdom from the Jewish tradition. I tell myself each day, "this too shall pass," no pain is permanent.
And yet the fear is there, at least for me, that I am on a downward spiral. So it was of value that I ordered a copy of David Whyte's book of reflections, Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words. Whyte, a marine biologist in the Pacific Northwest, was raised in Yorkshire, with Celtic ancestry (Irish and Welsh). Not surprisingly, he is a gifted poet, as his miniature essays on selected words reveal.
I first chose his entry on "Pain," and was reminded of several positive aspects of this problem: first, that it is "the doorway to the here and now." Whyte sees pain as a "way in" to interior healing. And to a sense of humility: "In real pain we have no other choice than to ask for help. . . Pain tells us we belong and cannot live forever in isolation."
In connecting us to others who share pain as part of the price of being human, Whyte goes on to emphasize how pain can lead to "real compassion." And as we undergo the limitations caused by pain, we also find that bodily pain calls for a broader view, whereby we step back and look at our lives from a detached perspective. Such a perspective is essentially comic: we can laugh at our predicament, at the physical absurdity that limits us. This is hard for me, but a point to return to.
Finally, Whyte says that although pain takes us on a lonely road that no one else can truly know, it also offers the possibility "of coming to know others as we have, with so much difficulty, come to know ourselves."
It took several readings of Whyte's concise reflections for them to sink in; when they did, I felt a relief that was less physical than emotional, a sense of solidarity with others who suffer. And I was reminded of the saying that "pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional." We have some choice in how we respond to the body in need of healing, how we turn despair into some kind of hope. I can experience physical pain, but I don't have to suffer and be miserable.
Whether I can laugh at my infirmities is a greater challenge, one that another author, Kelly Carlin, the daughter of the comedian George Carlin, notes in her new book, A Carlin Home Companion, a memoir detailing her progress from substance abuse and family dysfunction to healing. She, too, notes the need for detachment, the ability to step back from self-absorption, and look at the bigger picture:
"When you can learn to laugh at your pain, then you have a chance of finally moving on from it." She is able to do this through writing her life story: in organizing her life story into a narrative, she is able to shift her relationship to trauma and pain. They become "an object outside yourself."
For Kelly Carlin, as for David Whyte and millions of others, the art of writing becomes the means of detachment, a kind of therapy of healing the soul, if not the body. I am grateful to have come across both of them at the same time.