Friday, March 1, 2019

When pain becomes suffering

In recent years, after feeling strong and healthy for much of my life, I find myself beset with daily head and neck pains (arthritic) as well as the new and unwelcome thing called vertigo, which I hope will pass. It is very easy for me to worry about these ailments, to dread a future that limits me in various ways, and to feel sorry for myself.

Of course, I know others, both young and old, have greater physical burdens, but it's easy to feel uniquely singled out for suffering and want to cry out, "Why me, O God?"  In being angry and irritable, I become emotionally like a child and mentally convinced that no one can understand, or care about, how I feel--not even my dear, devoted wife and my many friends.

As I think about the old saying, "pain is inevitable, suffering optional,"  I find myself with the daily challenge not to feel isolated with my  problems. I think of a line from a Rilke poem, "no feeling is final; just keep going." To be aware of others I know with similar issues and to keep them mentally in mind, in prayer, helps me feel less alone and thus able to keep suffering at bay.  I also make an effort to be grateful for the good things I find in each day: the blue skies, the flowering trees, the music I hear, the voices that comfort or amuse or inform me.  And I look for creative ways to distract myself from self-pity and loneliness.

I will continue to have pain, but I don't need to suffer, which has to do with feeling alone, abandoned. Even Jesus on the cross cried out, "Father, why have you abandoned me?"  This is a universal cry of a heart that feels unloved. The challenge for a person of faith is to be mindful of connectedness.  Faith is essentially a matter of the heart, of feelings, which always trump theology and rational thought.

Richard Rohr, in his Daily Meditations, is my chief spiritual guide, reminding me that we are never truly alone but connected to the Great Vine (Christ): we are the branches (John 15:1-5). In his book THINGS HIDDEN, he goes so far as to say, "Your life is not about you; you are about Life!" He means we are not isolated individuals but part of creation, with its dark and light aspects,  and we are linked both to the natural world and to the human community.  "Someone else is living in and through us. We are part of a much Bigger Mystery."  This someone else is the Christ mystery, the presence of God in all of creation, a reality, he says, that's not limited to Christians.

We are never truly alone, except in our minds. Negative thoughts can destroy us, as we see in the rise in depression and suicide. Too many young people feel disconnected from their families, isolated, unloved.

Echoing what Tolstoi says in his great novella, "The Death of Ivan Ilych," Rohr says suffering comes from our denial of and resistance to pain, our sense that it is unjust and wrong.  We have to see our physical problems as part of the great cycle of life and death and rebirth.  We have to see pain as natural, as inevitable, as something that might lead to healing or transformation, the kind Ivan experiences in the final moments of his life. What redeems pain and suffering, we see in that story, is being loved.

I find the sharing with my friends who are undergoing various health challenges a comfort akin to love. In talking about our mutual problems, we are aware of being linked in a loving understanding, and we feel less alone.

To my agnostic/atheistic friends, who approach life through reason and say that life makes no sense, I want to scream, "It's all about feelings!"  Faith comes from within the heart, not the head.

Rabbi Harold Kushner has written, "Suffering in itself is meaningless; we give our suffering meaning by the way we respond to it."  The great spiritual challenge of my life is to respond to pain and suffering with courage, with patience, always aware that I am not alone.  I imagine myself falling back into the arms of a loving God; in this way, I feel that, even amid pain, I am not choosing to suffer.