Dis-abling Pain

Ways of Thinking about--and Dealing With--Chronic Pain

by Michelle M. Lelwica

Illustration by Terri Scott

When I told my chiropractor, who knows I’m a religion professor, that I was writing a paper on chronic pain for an academic conference, she gave me a funny look. “What’s chronic pain got to do with religion?” she asked. But before I had a chance to respond, she began answering her own question. Some of the clients she treats for pain tell her they “offer it up to God.” Others say they believe “God is trying to teach them something,” through their chronic discomfort. As I thought about the theology implicit in these comments, I wondered: What is the most helpful way for Christians to think about and deal with physical pain that won’t go away? While I doubt there is just one answer to that question, some approaches may be more helpful than others.

One of the most common approaches in mainstream society encourages a war-like mentality and strategy for conquering chronic pain. This adversarial approach is evident, for example, in Chronic Pain for Dummies, whose goal is “to help you understand and conquer your pain.” The book emphasizes the link between “knowledge” about persistent discomfort and the “power” to defeat this “villain” (elsewhere referred to as a “wild demon”): “You need to know some basics about the pain enemy before you can vanquish her.” That pain here is gendered female is not coincidental. Not only do women represent a disproportionate number of the 116 million of Americans living with persistent pain, but in our culture pain is associated with weakness, and I don’t need to tell you which sex has been designated “weaker.”

A bellicose approach to incurable pain echoes throughout commercial culture: in advertisements for products that promise to help you “vanquish chronic pain”; in nonprofit organizations that rally you to “triumph over chronic pain”; in self-help titles like Defeat Chronic Pain Now!, and even in the common term for pharmaceutical solutions: pain killer. To understand why this militant approach is so popular—despite the rather obvious fact that chronic pain is just that: pain that doesn’t go away and that cannot be easily conquered or killed—we need to see it in the context of the consumer culture’s wider obsession with controlling, fixing and perfecting bodies. This obsession is evident in commercial promises to create a fat-free, wrinkle-free, disease-proof and pain-free body.

However secular such promises seem, they find support in certain religious narratives. In the biblical tradition, one such narrative depicts physical maladies as the consequence of moral transgression: debilitating pain and illness are divine punishments for sin. According to the church fathers, these physical or moral afflictions will be eradicated in the final resurrection, when worthy humans will enjoy both spiritual and physical perfection.  In this narrative, healing equals curing, and good health (“salvation”) is both a reward and a hallmark of heaven.

In my view, Christian narratives that depict pain as punishment and equate healing with curing are no more helpful than secular health discourses that portray pain as an enemy that needs to be conquered. These views reinforce a “blame the victim” mentality. Moreover, the theory of pain as divine retribution—or even a spiritual test “for your own good”—makes God cruel.

Fortunately, another narrative in the Christian tradition provides an alternative way of thinking about and dealing with chronic pain. In this storyline, pain has transformative, even healing, potential—to the extent that one wrestles with its meaning.

This narrative emerges in the experiences of some of the most well-known women of the late medieval era, whose devastating pain and illnesses were life-changing, spiritually-awakening events. Hildegard of Bingen (d. 1179), famous for the lucid visions she received from God about the nature of creation and redemption, was sickly from birth and suffered from severe headaches throughout her life. Catherine of Siena (d. 1380) became sick (or made herself sick) after eating. This “infirmity” (the word she used) caused her tremendous pain, which she experienced as connecting her with the passion of Christ and with the sufferings of people on the margins of her society. In the midst of a painful, life-threatening sickness, Julian of Norwich (d. 1416) received 16 “revelations” of God’s love, in which she experienced Christ as a kind, nurturing mother.

These women’s experiences present us with some challenging questions: What if wrestling and reconciling with (rather than conquering) our bodies’ vulnerabilities is a crucial aspect of well-being? What if instead of seeing chronic pain as an enemy to be defeated, we saw it as uninvited yet pivotal opportunity for growth and healing, even as we sought to alleviate the suffering surrounding it? What if a body’s refusal to live up to an other-worldly vision of physical perfection makes it a valuable asset for critiquing the idolatrous fantasy of flawless health and the dysfunctional systems that chimera serves?

To see incurable pain as an opportunity for spiritual transformation does not imply that such pain is God-given. But it does suggest that we can decide how we assign meaning to that pain. The Christian narrative of chronic pain as a spiritual opportunity suggests that even the most abhorrent physical experiences may contain seeds for self-discovery and prophetic critique. Whether we experience disease and discomfort firsthand, or encounter them in the lives of others, these afflictions have the transformative potential to the extent that they are intentionally explored—rather than demonized. If consciously engaged, the experience of living with incurable pain can generate an alternative consciousness—one that challenges assumptions and norms we typically take for granted, renews our sense of what really matters, and helps us cultivate the strength to let go of things we can’t control.

Sources

Stuart S. Kassan, Charles J. Vierck, and Elizabeth Vierck, Chronic Pain for Dummies (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2008), 1, 12, 29, 32, 211.

Laurie Edwards, In the Kingdom of the Sick: A Social History of Chronic Illness in America (New York: Walker & Company, 2013), 110-111.

The American Chronic Pain Association defines “chronic or persistent pain” as “ongoing or recurrent pain, lasting beyondthe usual course of acute illness or injury or more than 3 to 6 months.” http://www.theacpa.org/uploads/ACPA_Resource_Guide_2013_Final_011313.pdf

Candida R. Moss, “Heavenly Healing: Eschatological Cleansing and the Resurrection of the Dead in the Early Church,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 79, no. 4 (December 2011): 991-1017.

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