Here I go again — aching with a cold, my head pounding and my nose acting like a leaky faucet. In bed, feeling sorry for myself, annoyed at my body for not letting me work on that never-ending list-to-do. Poor me …
While I’m feeling sorry for myself, though, others have to contend with much worse — the pain of cancer eating the body, the pain of fading vitality and memory, the pain a broken relationship, the pain of losing a job and livelihood, the pain of having a home destroyed by fire or flood, the pain of a drained bank account resulting in unpaid bills and disconnected utilities, the pain of abuse and exploitation, the pain of a child or sister gone missing. While I’m busy suffering my little pain in a warm bed, someone else is suffering big pain elsewhere in the danger zones of daily life.
Pain, medical experts say, is an important “house alarm system.” Pain alerts us to potential or real damage requiring attention and care. Without an intact pain alarm system, our bodies and minds would suffer significantly more as we would ignore way more injuries than is good for us.
Compared to most others, my aches and pains have been truly minor, for now — touch wood. Yet comparing with others is not the most helpful thing to do. Because each of us suffers pain in unique ways whether minor or serious. What is serious for one may be minor for another, and vice versa. A friend tried to minimize her anxiety over an impending diagnosis by telling herself that people in poverty-stricken areas of the world are much worse off than she is. Instead of these thoughts alleviating her anxiety, however, she almost slipped into denying her legitimate feelings in a very unhealthy way.
Physical pain is the most acknowledged of all, and the easiest to explain even though hard to remedy at times. Anything other than physical pain, however, seems to become nebulous, both to ourselves and to other people. Friends who suffer depression all have stories of being misunderstood, not taken seriously and even ridiculed. The social stigma that comes with mental illness adds insult to injury. Those who have never had pets ridicule those heartbroken over a pet’s death. Spiritual and emotional pain caused by feeling excluded and dismissed in one’s church community is “just in our heads.” On that note, Barbara Parson’s article in this week’s Commonweal Magazine is hard-hitting.
Why is it so hard to recognize, legitimate and attend to non-physical pain, our own and that of others? Why do we, often unwittingly, relegate emotional, mental and spiritual pain to the realm of subjectivity, thereby subtly implying a label of invalidity and triviality? Just because I cannot physically see or feel pain, doesn’t mean it is less real. The fact of the matter is that if emotional, mental or spiritual pain is not adequately acknowledged and tended to, it will eventually manifest itself in physical pain. Mind, body and spirit are intricately connected, affecting one another’s functioning in ways we’re not even aware of.
I may have been spared much physical pain in my life so far (again, touch wood …), but I’ve had more than my share of emotional, spiritual and, yes, ecclesial pain … It’s much easier to groan about a common head-cold and feel sorry for myself in bed than to live with deep inner pain that remains so invisible to the outside yet stings the inside as acutely as a thousand bees. More on that soon …
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