Although it is the most unanswerable of questions, suffering is also one of the most compelling for those with central pain. It is just possible we will not find an answer and are not supposed to.
The Spanish say, “Vale la pena” (The pain is worth it). Is this always true? Magnitude has to enter into any axiom or saying somewhere. How about really bad pain which does not end, is that worth it? At what point does the quotation float out of relevance? Furthermore, most sayings have an opposite saying. For example, “Look before you leap” is met with “He who hesitates is lost”. Truth in any situation is not automatic, and quotes generally have a flip side.
Being met with axioms is not unusual for central pain sufferers. How many times have we heard how CP is God’s will or that we are lucky, compared to some other malady. These are not reasoned responses, rather they are substitutes for hearing and reflecting. They represent little more than folk wisdom about “pain”. But what is meant by the word “pain”. Well of course it means pain in the conventional sense, as it is usually experienced. What if the subject were pain outside the normal, what if it were a “pain beyond pain”, as Riddoch termed central pain.
Normal pain is understandable. It is mostly about protection and prevention of further injury. Even deliberate torture serves some conscious end, even if it is just random cruelty. Most torturers do not extend the pain more than a few months, almost certainly not a lifetime. Even the most avid torturer has other preoccupations and obligations than to unremittingly inflict pain. Yet, that is the duration of central pain. Is the pain worth it then?
A popular movie recently quoted Proust that learning only occurred during his years of suffering. In the other years nothing was learned.
This same Marcel Proust, who died in the 1920′s, was a French novelist, the son of a doctor, whose style was to write in axioms. He is therefore frequently quoted. He was the original “self-help” writer, from which have come thousands since that time. Like all axiom speakers, Proust spoke to the ordinary, the usual, the mainstream. We cannot simply adopt Proust to help with the mental adjustment to central pain. CP is different. Proust himself would have agreed, for he said, “We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.” This seems to be particularly true as to severe central pain. Just as there are no medicines that really help, there no words that really help. Trying to frame it in religious terms that make sense is like a square peg in a round hole.
We can understand that Divine will is that we endure central pain well, but the “why” will not even begin to come through. We are not in Auschwitz, we bring it with us to church, and sit in puzzlement among sainted worshippers whose declarations on charity and love sound hollow and pretentious.
Frankly, they seem like tourists remarking on a wild flower along the path, even as they stroll past a crematorium or a starving person standing silently next to a disheveled hut. They offer no support, nor even any acknowledgement. Their minds cannot pass over into the dimension of nerve injury pain. They will confine pain (awful as normal pain is) to the dimension they know, and have generally mastered at arms length. They have war stories to tell of how they (or someone they know about) overcame pain WE could not imagine, or that was MUCH WORSE than anything we might have. And of course, there is the obligatory bringing up of Job to scourge us with, as most religious people are bound to do. It is mentally safer to believe pain will stay in its designated bounds. A monster like that is best to assign rules to, lest they despair. At some level, the average person knows they have insufficient metal for severe pain, or at least have no desire to find out. That some upgraded beast exists in the universe of man is fantastic, and “stupid”.
If “Satan’s main job is to convince people that he does not exist”–C.S. Lewis, central pain’s position is that the discussion may not even be held. It is not only “Better the devil we know” but rather it is “There IS no devil other than the one we know”.
This distancing forces us to develop a theology of our own, a task for which we are ill suited. We would be just as content with a medical or psychological frame of reference, since we know disease is not the central purview of official religion, but it seems to be the core issue of the CP life, and sometimes the only one. Of course we look upward to God for an answer, or inside, for a humanist explanation if we are disinclined toward religion. The essential feature is that we are alone in the suffering for who can imagine central pain except those who endure it. As Lily Thomlin said, “There is one thing to remember…we are all in this alone.”
We are not weak to ordinary pain, we are weak to central pain. We accept conventional wisdom about normal pain and use the garden variety remedies, use the garden variety attitude adjustments, and even use the garden variety interpretations of scripture which speak to suffering. The problem is that none of these do much good, if any, for central pain.
We accept that ordinary pain is protective. We try not to dwell on ordinary pain, which most CP sufferers have in largely increased amount, due to spinal cord injury and musculoskeletal soreness. A few bedsores, an uncooperative elimination system, plugged catheter, bony spines and discs that have long since forgotten any position of comfort, and there is plenty of ordinary pain by which to step up (or is it down) the ladder of pain knowledge. However, nerve injury pain is just not the same as normal pain. Again, to quote the great British neurologist, Riddoch, it is “pain beyond pain”.
If our movement is impaired, the public is generally kind, but let us imply that it is our pain which desperately needs help, and they wilt away to find someone more worthy and legitimate to assist. At best, we will get words of “instruction”. Some of the words of pain counsel, partcularly the ones guaranteeing a cure through some simple series of steps, a special herb their aunt grows, or even a particular type of massage, seem to evoke the word, “jackass” down deep in the reflective consciousness. They simply have no idea what they or we are saying because there is NO vocabulary for central pain.
CP is mysterious not only in the way to cope with it, but also in the language to decribe it. It is as easy to accept that angels (or devils) are floating around unseen in the room, as to accept that indescribable, ineffable, unbearable pain is wracking the mind and body of someone in your presence, whose countenance and lack of tears provides no substantiation for the statement that they have severe central pain. Listeners most frequently tell us that we are “lucky” in some fashion. We are perhaps lucky we don’t live back in Salem in the days of Cotton Mather. If we were foolish enough to declare our agonies, we would probably be regarded as possessed. Given the absolute saturation with burning pain, we might not be in a position to question it.
The mere declaration that we have monstrous thalamic suffering, our brain suffering, our cord suffering, and our dorsal root ganglion suffering seems a slap in the face to higher level evident, seeable suffering and therein lies the problem. Hidden suffering will never be as legitimate as that which can wrest the soul via the medium of the eye. Visible suffering wrenches the heart. Invisible suffering evokes little more than indifference. Frequently, that which cannot be seen is severely questioned and arouses the greatest disgust or even contempt. We are perhpas too sick to care about that, but we would like sufficient notice for the conduct of ressearch. As to CP, we must abandon Proust, and all whose knowledge of pain is limited to nociception, and ask what we can make of pain which does NOT teach us anything. We will hang with Buytendijk, who said such pain is usurious. It extracts far too great a price for the teaching value contained within it.
The occurrence of such pain has been viewed as the right of God to inflict “gratuitous suffering” by Guteirrez and others. Hauerwas has also written on the subject. Innocent, incidental pain makes no sense, so there is a rather furious attempt to insist that those of us in pain accept that the sense is there, for those worthy enough to see the Emperor’s clothing. To us, it seems a tragic incident of life, which we should endure well, but we see it more as a coincident to the mortal state, not a specific infliction of individually directed Divine intervention.
Although not a common theme in philosophy, religion, or the social sciences, the idea that most of life is governed by happenstance has been occasionally dealt with. When we say happenstance, we are NOT talking theology. It is apparent that God allows happenstance to some degree or we could not actually be anything more than puppets, certainly not his children.
We have to conclude that moral autonomy is an essential part of existence as real, unique living beings. It would not be satisfying if the universe were populated with inanimate, but functional Pinocchios. It is no more heresy to say that a good God could create a universe in which sin might occur than to say that He would create bodies in which central pain could happen. The public’s uncomfortability with “happenstance” ignores this fundamental necessity for opposition in all things. God might wish we would choose right, but for the sake of free will and moral autonomy, he allows us to choose. God might wish that science would cure pain, but He forces no one to do good.
Yet, the evidence is mounting that humans may have inherited their bodies from ancesstral apes, or at least a primitive (or perhaps not so primitive) variety of man. God has been content in times past to allow man plenty of scientific foolishness, such as the Church dogma that the earth is the center of the universe, or that the sun revolved around the earth. This foray into science was given great weight at the time, with excommunication or even death the penalty for having the temerity to question it, or for that matter, ANYTHING the church had to say about anything. Of late, we see a migration toward the view that accepts the idea that a God so intelligent he could create a world through evolution, without the necessity of intervening at every little step, suggests an even greater intelligence than a Creator who has to keep tinkering with everything.
The finding that primitive bacteria had a far more complicated genome than time would have permitted to evolve has pushed scientists into a little more humble and less “scientific” position. Equally cautious, many believers, realizing that man-like life is quite old, have now come to ponder what the complete nature was of Adam’s change upon partaking of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. There is a little less dogma floating around the world today, and we hope this portends an end to some of the superstition about pain, both from stodgy, set in stone doctors who can’t get off the old notion pain is psychological, as well as the oversold “God gave you the gift of suffering” crowd. Until proven otherwise, we think God wants us to exert our greatest effort to end pain, and to ask Him to bless the scientists as they accomplish this very thing.
Because the Orthodox variety are tolerant of criticism, we will focus for a moment on Christianity for theological comment, but the same could probably be said of any religion. We are caught between two ideas. One is that true religion encompasses all truth, which seems fair enough, as against the idea of stewardship. The religious leader may be the special steward of religious truth, but may have no stewardship whatsoever over the truths of science, which God presumbably knows perfectly and which therefore could be regarded as part of the Divine will. God perhaps created the laws of the universe, although one could debate that He did so with a perfect mind toward order and what inherently is good and makes sense.
Thus, we still have plenty of room in the discussion for the most devout believer, AND the most devout atheist, who sees order and Nature as interchangeable.
However, we choose to discuss it in the context of Christian thought, both because we know more about it and also because pain features as one of the central tenets of the life of Christ. Isaiah says the Messiah would be “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief”.
Regardless of religious persuasiion, or not, allow us to form a context for the sake of discussion. According to one train of thought, it was necessary for Jesus to descend below all things in order that He might succor those who stood in need of it. Whether this is actually true or not, we do not know. Our ignorance stems from the fact that Jesus himself does not appear to have known exactly why His suffering was necessary. He spoke of powerful paradoxes, perhaps infinitely puzzling, when He reminded God that all things were possible unto Him. This was surely true.
We don’t know what “below all things” really means, but apparently, it is pain and death. If we are to believe the early Christian writers, such as Chrysotom, pain is the worst, since there was a verbal parying in Gethsemane over whether pain was actually necessary, whereas in death, Jesus simply asked why God was not with Him, without raising arguments. How could death no be enough? Why infinite pain?
The debate, and the request that another way be found suggests that although the outcome was clear, the methodology was not. When Peter suggested that Jesus would be delivered, saved from death, Jesus responded, “Get thee behind me Satan” meaning almost certainly that His destiny was known to Him. The reasons for it, however, were not necessarily evident. In this sense, the descent was truly below all things. Persistence and obedience despite no clear answer as to why.
Perhaps those who are so hasty to mention the book of Job and thereby put it all in their hip pocket as if the subject were closed, should consider the fact that Jesus was very familiar with Job. In fact, He probably knew the real story better than anyone who has ever lived on the earth. Yet, he still struggled in His mind over the powerful paradoxes of suffering. It may be folly for anyone to presume to understand why it exists. Proust may or may not be correct that the years of suffering were only the years he learned anything. The Bible says Jesus learned obedience through the things that he suffered. This suggests it if it was necessary for Jesus, it would be presumptious for us to assume we can learn needed lessons any other way, but exactly what those lessons are, and why they must be learned in this fashion; well, maybe this is beyond man’s grasp.
Another problem with using Job’s story as a “one size fits all” remedy for the paradox of suffering is that ultimately Job was healed. it is not a book which declares that humans should fatalistically accept pain for all time. Rather, it is a book of faith. To recommend that someone shut up and simply endure pain is essentially a faithless declaration. Is it not in some way using the Lord’s name in vain to hand Job to someone with central pain, with the admonition that Job suffered and so we should expect nothing better. The book does not say that at all. Job is a virtual acknowledgement that humans are expected to complain about that which they do not understand, not a book to stuff our mouths shut.
We pray for relief knowing that God generally expects humans to do all they can themselves before relying on Divine help. Thus, we see our clamor to the scientific world to be our part of the prayer. It is always distressing to meet some pious individual who has no comfort to spare since they imagine they have had all the pain they can bear in their own lives and must conserve any positiveness to themselves. Pain hurts, and they know it was plenty for them and they are not about to go to bat for other people’s pain. Of course, they have not experienced anything remotely like central pain. They do have support to spare. This is analogous to the Scrooge-like tendency of the wealthy to clutch their abundant money to themselves without generous sharing with the needy. Can this be pleasing to God. Can it please our Maker if those who have passed through some painful discomfort regard themselves as thereby exempted from dispensing any support, psychological or otherwise. It is as if they know pain is immense, and they have had a taste, and have therefore chosen to retain any anti-pain resources for their own protection.
Protestations by clerics of whatever persuasion that suffering is all cut and dried are inconsistent with the uncertainty, the incomplete understanding by one Who should have been in a position to use the lessons taught in Job to the fullest. We suspect a similar question mark can be drawn from all religions, that severe, innocent suffering is simply not understandable.
Of course, man has frequently thought to take the measure of God. One of the most furious storms in modern theology was the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Father Danielou expressed the quandary of the scrolls thusly: Since Christians have nurtured the idea that the precise versions of prophetic works retained in the Dark Ages are by definition, the most accurate, godly, salvation promoting that could possibly exist, what are we to do with versions of the books of the Bible which are obviously very much older than anything modern scripture is based upon.
Man’s attempt to shut God up and say that since it is written down in a book, God could and would never have said anything else, is on very thin ice. This is particularly so since the King James version was based on at least 22 different manuscripts, none of which agreed with each other. Apparently the principle that the God of the Universe could only communicate with a tribe of desert bedouins, herding sheep, unable to build their own temple or ships for lack of education (the Hittites had to build Solomon’s temple for them), is a bit narrow.
By similar analogy, the idea that everything worthwhile about pain has already been covered by the book of Job may be extreme. It was not enough to lend thorough understanding to Jesus and it is not enough to lend understanding to us.
Nearly all religious leaders have some element of the poser when they speak of pain. What do they know of what they know nothing of? Central pain is beyond pain. Knowledge of it is reserved to the damned. We ask for some other way, but must accept a “no” answer. In so doing, we follow an example set by Jesus, Buddha, Zoroaster, Confucius. Mohammed, or any of the great leaders, who taught of man’s limited understanding compared to the mind of God.
It would appear there must be an element of free agency, of chance, of happenstance, and of uncertainty for us to be truly human beings, and not robots. This idea was obnoxious to Einstein, who declared “God does not play dice with the universe”. This position prevented Einstein’s accepting quantum mechanics, the basic tenet of which is the unpredictability of subatomic matter, such as quarks, spinning nuclei, and the like. We still don’t think God plays dice, but we do sense some element of free will as necessary to be real unique intelligent beings. This is as close to the mystery as we get, and we are far from certain that we are close at all.
By the same token, we know that it is not wisdom to question the sovereignty of the Divine, to circumscribe how God is to relate to us, to redeem us. Our notions are always a bit incomplete, His way are not our ways. If we attempt to say God can or must do this or that or we will refuse to believe or obey, then we make God into a puppet, controlled by limited human notions of where the most direct route to heaven lies. We must go on, despite the failure of anyone else to relieve our pain.
According to a reviewer, in Gutierrez’s book, “On Job” he shows how “empty theology sounds when it refuses to speak from the harsh realities of life”. Job complained and questioned. Is that what we are to do, or should we do better? If so, we are not doing very well.
We are far from understanding why central pain exists, and suspect strongly that it should not. Science should have eliminated it long ago. People should have been better Samaritans. We should have spent a little less on bubble gum and a little more on relieving the pain. We wring our hands at Auschwitz, asking how we can speak of theology after Auschwitz, even as we ignore the incredible suffering of those with severe central pain.
Although we have observed that Jesus endured suffering under protest, our friends and neighbors will not allow us the same luxury, due apparently to their fear any outcry or expression of genuine feeling would offend God. We think the opposite is true. We believe it is God’s will that medicine cure pain, that suffering be spared us. We also believe it is normal to initiate a vast lament over the pain. This is the message we believe the scriptures provide.