In search of a meaning for physical pain.
Permanent and serious illness is almost inseparable from constant physical pain, be it through the illness itself, or through the therapy which one follows to regain one’s health. But physical pain is not the only type of pain with which the ill person must deal. Emotional and spiritual pain are summoned by the physical pain itself as a new condition is brought upon the person and specially those surrounding the ill. Later on, in another post, I will look at the ontological assault on the self which serious and chronic illness represents in terms of the loss of personal identity which the ill person must now face.
The ill suddenly see the narrative of their lives —which they have constructed through the years, even if they are few—- enter into an unknown and frightening domain in which the very possibility of a conscious narrative is in constant question. Pain arrests the normal possibility of narrative through action and reflection. Pain reduces all movement, pain removes all words (if you are healthy, just try to imagine one of those days in which you have a stomachache or headache). This is why it is of the utmost importance that the ill find all the means possible to understand their pain and give it a sense of meaning even when others do not see this as a possibility (of course, THEY do not have the pain!) This implies in part following, what is so common today, learning to “manage” one’s pain (for instance, the power of breathing). But this is an economic metaphor that reduces the spiritual potential hidden within each and every suffering person to a mere issue of control. Health is not a business, no matter how much we are forced to think so.
During the many years of recovery from my illness, I have had my share of very severe pain. Without going into the details (though actually I find it absolutely rare to find a person wishing to speak reflectively about pain; it seems to pain them more than the pain itself!) , I simply want to share a story which I always remember when pain comes around to visit me.
There are many such stories, but one needs to surround oneself by them. I myself simply recall the story of a young man from my dear Bogotá who on the very day of his graduation from school ——and having received a meritorious award for being one of the best high school students in the country—- was “accidentally” shot in the back. He was almost paralyzed completely. What he told one reporter I have never been able to forget. Paraphrasing, the young man said something like this when asked about his pain:
“Whenever I have pain I actually feel better for it tells me that I still have feeling in my limbs. It tells me my body is still trying to recover. It brings me hope. This motivates me everyday to try to move just a bit more each day.”
By moving a bit, he meant moving his toes.
When in pain, the ill —and those who surround them—- must search for such stories in order to bring a sense of purpose and narrative (see Charles Taylor, SotS) to their suffering, their shame, their vulnerability and their present weakness. Perhaps the greatest purpose can be the very recovery of the new narrative in sickness in which the patient finds himself. By giving his illness the sense of a story, the question of pain will still be present, yet secondary. (To this effect, I will post a sample diary sheet for the ill in the next post to record privately the daily happenings of their new situation. To this effect, I will also post a basic bibliography on illness which may open avenues for those who are ill.)
In contrast, I once heard a doctor say that he was a good doctor because he helped his patients as best he could. However, he added responding to a person who spoke as this post does, that he had to be honest and could see no purpose whatsoever in the pain and suffering of his patients. One wonders how such a bright and successful man could not see how contradictory his words were.