There’s a funny thing about living with chronic pain. Eventually, you get used to it.
I don’t mean that it goes away. I don’t mean that it no longer hurts. But there comes a point when you start acclimating to it, and what used to stop you in your tracks slowly becomes something that you notice but that doesn’t dominate your mind. Pain that you used to rate as a seven on a 10-point scale may eventually become a four.
Sure, you know that the baseline is supposed to be a zero, but after a few years your numbers don’t move so much as expand, so what you used to consider a three is now encompassed in a two. Something that once would have left you feeling utterly crippled may now cause a hitch in your step or slow you down, but you are — after all — walking.
I know it sounds like I am saying that the pain becomes less. But that’s not it.
Think of it like when you’re watching the television at full volume and the signal goes out. At first, the sound of the static is just deafening. It hurts. But if you listen to it long enough, your ears begin to adjust.
The noise, however, hasn’t actually changed in volume.
I’m beginning to feel like that’s what living in the world is like these days.
A long shadow
On the day that was originally dedicated to honoring the Italian explorer working for the Spanish crown who definitely didn’t discover a trade route to India, my children were out of school.
Most of the summer was too hot to do the kind of serious nature bathing that I prefer in my free time — and a love for which I am trying to inculcate in the kids — and so with a free school day and temperate fall weather, we headed for a state park with hiking trails that are both long and rated as being easy enough for small children.
Walking the trail, we found that it hadn’t been used much in recent months. The summer’s heat dome had apparently scared off other hikers, and the path between the yellow or blue and white blazes marking our course was crowded with flowers and native grasses that wouldn’t normally grow up on oft-trod ground. When we found the side trail we really wanted, it was actively overgrown with bluestem, Indiangrass and flax that the climate’s mercurial oscillations had fooled into blooming late in the year.
As we tramped through the hills and down into the lowlands, the child in the lead stopped. Directly in the trail ahead of us sat a water moccasin, the kind of snake that as a child I would have called a cottonmouth. It was sunning in a dapple of light that snuck through the hardwood canopy.
The child backed up out of caution but not fear, and the snake, in turn, raised itself up slowly, lifting its head as if to get a better look at us. It didn’t move aggressively like the swamp snakes I came across as a youngster in Tremont Bottom. Instead, it took a slow look at us, turned and confidently slid into the grass, sure that it was fine and so were we.
Continuing on, we made it to a bridge, one of our hiking targets. At the base, we ate the lunch I had backpacked in. There are few finer picnics than one eaten with your children on the side of a shaded hill after having hiked multiple miles while stopping every 15 feet to admire a funny mushroom, or to watch a rabbit run up an incline, or to ogle any other flora or fauna along the way.
Just before we stood up to make the return journey, a plane flew overhead. It was a military aircraft and reminded me of a fresh war that I’d been trying not to hear about, in part because the issues surrounding the war are deep-rooted, longstanding, complicated and historically intractable.
Even though it was small and far away, the plane seemed to cast a long shadow across the sunny day.
‘New liver, same eagles’
There’s the old metaphor about slowly boiling a frog in a pot, but I feel like the pain example is more apt for life in the contemporary world.
For the frog, at least at some points, the heating water is initially pleasant. For us, those who are constantly bombarded with news of the next horrible thing, each one is a shock. The news doesn’t have a period when hearing it is pleasant to the heart or the humors. It always hurts to hear about another mass killing, or eroded freedom, or a bad actor speaking in our name.
We might find an analgesic for the moment, or even something stronger, but we have to resolve ourselves to living with some level of pain if we don’t want to be completely disconnected or numb.
When we look at the complex issues of the day, I am reminded of a joke I read about Prometheus, who — according to mythology — has been condemned to have his immortal liver eaten by eagles every day for all of eternity. In the joke, an acquaintance asks him how he has been doing, and Prometheus shrugs and says, “New liver, same eagles.”
We have, like Prometheus, become used to the eagles. They are in some way familiar. Of course their pecking and tearing still hurts, and the pain is no less than it used to be, but it has become part of our common lived experience.
It is not right. The normal level of pain, per the chart, is none. We are not meant to ache.
And yet here we are, bombarded again and again with a thousand bits of stimuli to overload us, jolts sharp enough to encourage collective panic and grief, angling us to react in either fear or grief. The government is failing; the cost of living is too high; the planet is the pot that is boiling the frog, which is us as a species. We look and see that fascism is on the rise, that military conflicts seem inevitable, or that a thousand Elmer Gentries have stolen our faith and are poisoning entire generations against it.
Day in and day out, the eagles return, looking for a new liver. Many days, they find us.
Making a choice
On the walk back from the bridge, the pills I had taken before the hike to keep my pain manageable began to wear off. The hitch in my step became tighter and tighter, and a couple of times I would have stumbled without my walking stick.
But something I learned after several years of living with the pain is that, while you have to acknowledge it to manage it, you can’t let it control you. If you are afraid of what you might feel, you will also miss out on a good many other experiences in life.
Sometimes pain that will take an hour of therapist-prescribed stretches, a handful of management medication and a day of recovery is worth getting out into the world to see brother snake and sister mushroom, to be able to stop under the trees and hear wind that deliciously close to song.
I would rather smell the must of the leaves and stand in the dry creekbed, feeling the sand under my toes and listening to my children learn to love the natural world than I would rather avoid the furor of grumbling neuropathies.
The same is true for a shared life in society. Even though I know humanity will throw something terrible my way sooner or later, I also know that — given the chance — living in community with others will offer something more wonderful that will overwhelm the ugly.
One of us
I’ve been leading a Christian education class for the past two years, and we have been working slowly through the Gospels. The class is wrapping up now with Luke, who has two concerns in his early chapters — the first is anchoring the presence of Jesus in the world as a historical event, and the second is proclaiming it as good news.
One of the things all these months focusing on the retelling of Jesus’ life has given me is an appreciation for Jesus the man, who — depending on your Gospel — is mission-oriented but also earthy. He gets hungry. He has opinions about politics, and rails against hypocrisy. In Luke, he begins his public ministry by getting up and saying that he has good news to proclaim to the poor — and for Jesus, the Kingdom of Heaven is never just a sacred metaphor.
So much of his ministry across all of the Gospels is focused on alleviating real, entrenched suffering that you can’t read the stories of his life as simply allegories for treating people’s degraded spiritual states. A lot of commentaries through the centuries have sanitized the stories with study notes that say things like, “Jesus’ healing of the paralytic is another demonstration of his power.” The more I read those notes, the more I think, “Yes, but…”
The healing stories were a demonstration of power, and of mission, but I think for a significant part they were simply a demonstration of humanity. Jesus was a real man, living at a real point in history, and he understood that life is full of a thousand pains, and so when he was given the opportunity to help alleviate just a little more of that pain, he did, again and again. At a vital, human level, he understood that suffering must be answered with compassion.
Having felt all those pains himself, having been born into and raised in the same society and having seen just how tough life there was, Jesus understood that he was bringing good news because the people he would spend his time amongst had experienced so much bad news.
God did not have to choose to come and suffer alongside humanity, but God still made that choice. In the person of Jesus of Nazareth, God chose to come and feel the same pains we feel, and — lest we forget — to feel the same joys we feel, to fully identify with us even while offering freedom to the captive and good news to the poor.
God looked at humanity and decided that the pain was worth the payoff.
The story doesn’t end there, of course. Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death. But for today I see the good news illumined in the picture of a man who probably spent years sleeping on the ground; who likely had to stretch when he woke up with an ache in his bones; who got hungry and who was irritated by hypocrisy; who knew that he was going to spend his days helping other people; who knew that pain is chronic; and who chose it anyway because of all the beautiful things he was going to see along the way.