Allen: I’d like to turn to a more personal topic, one which we’ve talked about a good deal: physical suffering. As I’ve learned to cope with chronic discomfort over the past three years, this question has never been far from my mind, and I’ve been dismayed to gradually learn just how many people just among our friends and family silently deal with far worse obstacles.
This conversation needs to be had publicly. The obvious yet unspoken fact is that guys like us in their twenties don’t like talking about how we feel. For months, I wouldn’t tell my closest friends about the headaches that stayed with me quite literally every waking moment. Why? Silly reasons — I didn’t want to admit defeat, I didn’t want to burden anyone. It astounded me when I started opening up, only to hear similar stories of chronic illness from the same friends I’d tried so hard to stoically deceive, you among them.
Clearly, nothing you or I have encountered remotely compares with the excruciating difficulties other people face. We can only speak about our own limited experience. Even so, that doesn’t mean we should dismiss our problems. Aron, do you feel you, personally, have learned anything from your physical difficulties? And does religion have anything to do with it?
Aron: It’s hard to know where to begin with this, so pardon a long response. We’ve spoken a lot about how to understand our physical pain, and how to reckon with whatever we’ve learned from dealing with it. I’ve read many books and stories about pain, several at your recommendation, but one of the stories that’s spoken most truly to my experience is that of Jacob wrestling the angel (Exodus 32:25).
“And Jacob was left alone.” This — the beginning of the story — speaks to how isolating pain has felt at times. For one thing, if I’m in pain during a conversation or activity, it’s hard to focus. Even when I’m not in pain at a given moment, though, my condition and the way it’s shaped my last few months is often on my mind. That said, I don’t want to be constantly diverting conversations to discussions of mortality and illness, so I end up carrying on an inner dialogue about those things while also trying to participate in whatever’s going on. In both cases, it’s difficult to be fully present.
Jacob refuses to relinquish his grip on the angel. “I will not let you go,” he says, “unless you bless me.” You asked whether we learn from our suffering. I don’t think suffering teaches. I do believe that when our pain is manageable, our reaction to it can allow us to grow. We can, like Jacob, wrestle with it until we get something out of it. In the words of the Christian theologian Paul Tournier, “The person matures, develops, becomes more creative, not because of the deprivation in itself, but through his own active response to misfortune.”
We are both privileged, I think, to have conditions that are mild enough not prevent us from leading full lives. I don’t know if we would be able to claim that we had learned something from our response to pain if that pain prevented us from getting out of bed. Then again, Tony Judt, writing about Lou Gehrig’s disease (something that makes our conditions look trivial by comparison), stated, “I have found within myself the sort of survival mechanism that most normal people only read about in accounts of natural disasters or isolation cells.”
Judt goes on to say, though, that “the satisfactions of compensation are notoriously fleeting. Loss is loss, and nothing is gained by calling it by a nicer name.” I would never claim that dealing with pain has given me any insight into such an awful illness. Still, his words resonate with me. Much as I might say that I’ve learned something from this experience, I would certainly trade away that knowledge for my health.
There’s one last experience I’ve had, and I’m curious to hear whether you’ve felt it, too: every now and then, I have fleeting moments of awe that I don’t remember having before becoming ill. A few months ago, I stood alone at night in the rain in a pair of shorts, overcome with the joy of being able to stand for a few minutes without pain, the rawness of the rain against my skin, and the immensity of the sky. I think that Jacob, too, feels a mix of terror and wonder after his ordeal. He names the site of his struggle “Peniel,” meaning “I have seen a divine being face- to face, yet my life has been preserved.” Struggling against pain has allowed me to see my life , however briefly, face to face.
Allen: From my point of view, you’ve been thoughtful and empathetic all along, but this post confirms it. Thanks for a moving response. In answer to your question: yes, I think I recognize those small moments. Sometimes I’m lost in nature, or swallowed up in deep in a book, or listening to a close friend, and I feel really present in a way I can’t remember from before my headaches. Like you said, pain has its consolations, though I’d swap them for a clean bill of health any time.
Again, I can only write from my own perspective here. The same tired train of thought has been circling round and round my mind for three years now. If nothing else, putting it in writing helps clear my head; and if any of it speaks to your experience, so much the better.
Here’s how my own feelings have developed. In my life, pain is a given. There’s no way around it. The only positive question I can ask myself is this: What is my pain for? What use can I make of it? Will it push me to become kinder, gentler, more compassionate? The answer to that particular question is, and always will be, on me. You know I’ve read and reread Milton Steinberg’s dusty old volume of sermons on Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev. “I do not ask to know why I suffer,” Levi Yitzchak cries out to the heavens. “I ask only to know that I suffer for Your sake.” Steinberg, writing in the midst of a series of heart attacks which would soon kill him at the age of forty-five, quotes this passage as proof of man’s ability to define the terms of his own struggle. Man is never entirely abandoned, “for if we religionists are right, he has God, and if we are wrong, he always has himself.”
It took me a while to realize that I had to open up, that my healing needed to come from my family and friends and community. I’ve quoted a million times over John Donne’s realization as he lay close to death from the plague: “Every man is a piece of a continent, a part of the main […] Every man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind.” Or Marcus Aurelius’ reflection: “We are many pieces of incense burning in the same flame; there is no difference.” Or Zalman Schneur’s vision: “All are truly brothers by virtue of the source of the soul they share; only the bodies are separated.” At my worst moments, I try to at least remember that.