The Spirituality of Pain and Suffering 02
We live in a time of great medical technology, of amazing breakthroughs. The quest for Cures tantalizes. We assume as a matter of course that a Cure for everything is out there, if only, like the Holy Grail, we could find it. The Great White Coat of modern medicine holds out this promise. "Be patient" it says, "spend the necessary dollars, endure our procedures, our tests, the Cure will be found. Trust us." And we do. We believe in the promise of Medicine as the ancients believed that the gods ruled the fates of those on earth, living in the thunder, the rain, the moon and the stars. But theirs was a blind faith. Today, ours is as well. We place our very lives into the hands of medicine and expect the miracles to come. Yet one of our most persistent problems continues to plague millions of us. The problem of chronic pain, often crippling, debilitating pain. So far, the miracle has not appeared. No Cure so far. Worst of all, many who suffer from chronic pain problems are told that the problem lies not in their bodies but in their heads. The great white Coat has failed us.
So what are we to do? First, we need to give up our blind faith in Medicine, our belief in the miracle. We have to abandon the idea that with the right magic pill, all will be well and we will go on to lead "normal lives." We need to embrace the idea that the solution to chronic pain will lie not in a magical cure from without, but in a process of cooperation between ourselves and our physicians.
We are not automobiles to be brought in to our mechanic with the demand, "Fix me." We are complex human beings who must be a party to, not necessarily to our cure, but to our healing. If we assume that we are like automobiles, we also assume that we have absolute power over the complex mechanism of our bodies but this is an illusion given to us by the Great White Coat. In fact, we don't have absolute power over our bodies. We never have had it. The sooner we realize this, accept this, the farther down the road to recovery we'll be. When we let go of control of our bodies we release ourselves to examine our pain, our body in pain, and the human suffering we experience as a result of our pain. It may seem paradoxical yet, letting go of the idea that we have control, seeming to give up, as it were, frees us for the healing we so deeply need. Our healing, as you will soon see, is not only about our body and how it feels, the muscles, the joints but about the deeper parts of ourselves as well.
It is important to look at the world we live in and see how it may affect our bodies and our minds, our core beliefs without us ever quite realizing what is going on. Take a look around at the constant influx of messages from the media, society, church, friends, and even our family members. Much of the messages we receive from these different sources, whose primary motivation is economic not altruistic, have a tremendous impact on how we view ourselves, how we choose to mold ourselves in our most personal and private behaviors as well as how we shape our public selves. We live in a culture that advertises nothing but perfection of our human body, our souls. We are marketed to incessantly to make our bodies perfect, our clothes perfect, our children perfect, our marriages perfect. How are we supposed to see ourselves when the mirror our society holds up to us says, too fat, too thin, too unattractive and on and on. When a person suffers in chronic pain that perfect world is all the more punishing. Becoming aware of how these forces act upon us will help us weed out what we want to accept and what we do not. We can choose from entirely different sets of ideals for ourselves based upon what we ourselves believe. When we release the quest for all that perfection we are free to heal both our physical pain and our human suffering.
Many religions approach the body as a place for either the actions of sin or grace, good versus evil. Sickness is at times viewed as a punishment for wrong doing. Yet there are new, gentler interpretations that encourage growth and understanding, an integration of all our parts, of our selves with our shadows, our undeveloped aspects that if nurtured will actually help us heal and move towards wholeness.
In the same way that religious texts may be explored and read in new ways, so the story of our bodies may be read in new and helpful ways as well. The traditional medical approach examines only the symptoms that the body presents, reads the body if you will, by categorizing your symptoms in little boxes that fit predetermined medical models. You have this or that disease but if your symptoms do not match any preexisting category of illness, well then, it's all in your head.
Imagine instead now, a new way to read the body of pain, a way which takes in the whole of you, your symptoms, of course, but also, the rest of you, who live an existence that is uniquely your own. You and your disease will be different than that of someone else with apparently the same thing. No two people are exactly alike and so for a physician, no two people will read like the same book at all. This way of reading a person as they pursue a path to healing is very non-literal and most importantly, non-judgemental. It is humane and gentle. It seeks to understand the complicated dance of interaction between our different aspects, our physical self and our spirit. It seeks to understand each person within the context from which they have emerged, in their physician's office, saying, "Fix me." Their religious, social, and cultural background, all of which affects how they, uniquely experience their disease and their pain. It has been long known that various kinds of conditioning affect how a person experiences pain. For example, in WWI, on the battlefield, wounded soldiers only suffered the pain of amputation after they had carried their comrades in arms to safety; worshipers in some Muslim practices draw blood from their own scalps in ecstatic rituals without feeling pain. So too, the individual biography of each person has a hand in how that person experiences pain. Those "used to chronic pain react differently to acute illness that those new to the experience."
A complicating factor in the treatment and experience of disease in our modern culture has to do with money. Some diseases rate very high on the scale and garner all the dollars and media attention while others, though equally distressing and painful rate hardly a glance. AIDS, breast cancer, Alzheimer's, all big money, big publicity diseases. By contrast, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibrositis is viewed negatively by the medical profession and the insurance companies who rate illness and determine what is worth spending money on. If you happen to have an un-hip illness, then you will likely be out of luck when it comes to insurance coverage. Case in point, the American Academy of Rheumatology refused to recognize fibromyalgia as an independent disease until in 1986, a grass roots movement forced their hand with a congressional hearing.
Doctors are all part of a professional medical culture, which directly impacts upon how they assess disease and accordingly, how they treat it and their patients as well. The views or biases of the doctor are passed on to the patient. If the doctor tells you that your pain is all in your head, implies that you are somehow weak, or confused, what is a person to do? The reality, the truth is that the patient has pain whether the Great White Coat acknowledges it or not. Whether a result of AIDS or chronic fatigue syndrome or something else, objectively pain is pain, period. When the doctor refuses to affirm a patient's suffering the patient is likely to inherit those values as well. At that point they may justifiably feel that they have nowhere else to turn.
So how did we get here? How did it come to pass that the medical world and most of the rest of us as well, views the human being as split between body and mind? It began in the Middle Ages, was transfigured by the French philosopher, Renee Descartes and blossomed in modern medical thinking, which developed primarily in Europe then leapt across the ocean to us here in the United States.
In the end, this perceived split has led all allopathic doctors, (The Great White Coat) to ask all their patients with chronic pain, "Is this real pain or imagined and psychosomatic?" The problem is especially prickly when the patient arrives at the doctor's office with pain complaints and the doctor administers a battery of tests, MRI, maybe CAT scans and sees nothing that they can interpret as the source of the pain. "You see?" they exclaim, "The test shows it. There is nothing there. Your pain, Madam or Monsieur, is all in your head. You lack proof of your symptoms. No organic cause can be seen. There's really nothing wrong with you. Go home. Take a vacation." Or in another typical scenario, the doctor says to the patient, "You're just depressed."
We must resist the idea that we are beings that can be carved up into neat little categories or boxes whose boundaries do not touch or overlap in any way. Let me tell you what I have seen. Patients with M.S., a so-called, documented, proven illness, which can be seen on spinal fluid analysis and MRI as well as on electro-diagnostic testing also suffer in their mind, their soul. Their physical body is not the only thing that needs care. The whole person requires tender attention. The physical pain they experience does not occur in a vacuum away from the rest of their lives. These patients need to have the emotional and human anguish associated with their physical pain, which impacts their social, family and all interpersonal relationships addressed with as much attention and seriousness as the other aspects of their disease.
If you do not suffer from any chronic pain I want you to imagine what it must be like for someone to go through life, with terrible pain and no disease that any doctor or other medical professional will recognize. Ill defined disorders like fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome put the sufferer at risk for guilt associated with family issues, job issues and the sheer rejection they must feel when the Great White Coat tells them nothing is wrong with them.
So the solution is for us to come together in humility and compassion so that we can figure out an approach to manage this pain in order to make life a little bit more livable. We make neither assertions nor claims regarding cure. We offer no fancy or magical solutions with any one particular therapy, modality or oral remedy. All we offer is ourselves, to listen, be attentive, be compassionate and treat you with respect and dignity as if you were family.
We make recommendations only, so that you can make informed decisions regarding your own health. Your autonomy is paramount. Once you have decided we assist you in getting the best care-solution whether it be in our own facility or elsewhere. We welcome second opinions since we are more interested in your sense of well being than in our being right.