Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Learning From Pain

Living with chronic pain is like living with a psychic hitchhiker who never pays for gas or food. Pain comes along on vacation, but never picks up the tab after an evening at the night club. Pain robs one of ambition and drains the energy out of the day.

Pain is also a teacher, and we can learn to use our pain as a focus point for learning and growth. Yes, the pain can dog us throughout the day, but we can rise above it, ignore its desperate calls for attention, and even experience moments---perhaps even minutes or hours---without being conscious of its determination to be heard.

My pain is a nagging sensation along the right side of my spine, sometimes coiled there like a viper, at other times stretched out, enjoying its ability to take up space, coercing other nearby muscles to join the party. It doesn't move around much, but it has some contacts in other areas of my personal geography, and sometimes they chat and collude together. When the pain is more dispersed, my discomfort and unhappiness can grow exponentially, and the pain seems to thrive on my misery.

Sometimes, I realize that I haven't been conscious of any pain for minutes on end, and at other times I'll notice that it's been hours since I felt any pain. These are moments for celebration, and my deepest wish is to string together periods like this so that, eventually, I have entire pain-free days.

This morning, it's like a metal rod has been surgically implanted along the right side of my spine, and even if I stretch and pop a few vertebrae, the pain does not relent. Still, I expect that there will be moments and minutes today when I won't even notice it, when I am so enraptured with what's in front of me, leaving no space in my consciousness for something as measly and undeserving of attention as pain.

My pain gives me pause, makes me focus on my body, bringing me into the moment even when that moment is not a pleasurable one. Pain sharpens my awareness, reminding me of my corporeal reality, and can sometimes be a window into the suffering of others.

Several months ago, a dear friend of mine took his own life, partly due to unrelenting back pain that no doctor or healer could explain or assuage. My pain is similar, in that it cannot be identified or quantified by x-ray or MRI, and only one healer has had even a modicum of success in temporarily relieving it.

I understand my friend's motivation to end his own suffering and finally be without pain, but I am determined to beat the pain at its own game, turn it on it's head, show it who's boss, and leave this life naturally when my time comes, having lived a full life, undeterred by something as selfish and decrepit as pain.

Pain will not control me. It may limit my activities and make me think twice when there's wood to chop or water to carry, but it will not lead me deeply down those darkest roads of self-pity and fear. Yes, I have walked those roads and they are not pretty, but those are temporary visits, and I return to the light once more.

Pain is indeed a good teacher, and it is teaching me that life is for the living, and pain simply will not stand in the way of a life well lived.

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