January 27, 2015

Powerful Pain

As of this week, I believe in time travel. Physical pain I had last year has returned again, giving me more reason to dislike January and February. Between then and now, I've had three MRIs, a major surgery on my spine, multiple visits with specialists, and so many pills I have a medication organizer that makes me scowl. Only old people have those. I refuse to be an old person.

When I started choosing gratitude several years ago, I began with big things: family, income, shelter, health, sunny days. This last year taught me that even slender flakes can be pure gold. I wondered (and worried) last August that I wouldn't be able to tell which pain was from fibromyalgia and which pain was from degenerative spinal discs. This week I truly have felt thankful that yes, there is a difference, and yes, I know which is which.

I apologize if that's too Pollyanna-optimistic for you; it's hard-fought progress for me to see that and mean it.

Somewhere along the line our Western world got the idea that life and happiness and joy are directly related to how much pain we prevent or remove from daily existence. We are uncomfortable around struggles that have no answers, pain that baffles experts. I disagree with this perspective.

As someone underneath a harrow, here's what I value:
1. Your honesty with me
If you don't understand why this is happening to me, say so. If you're baffled that I could feel grateful, please say that. One of my greatest gifts this week was a friend who told me she was fine with me feeling grateful, but she was going to be mad on my behalf. One of your greatest gifts to someone in pain is your honesty. It helps me feel safe enough with you to be honest, too.

2. Your willingness to listen
I'm not interested in answers. My biggest struggles in life each have stark examples of people (usually acquaintances rather than close friends) who had solutions to my problem. I should just do this. I should just go see that person. I should really start taking/stop eating X. If you haven't walked every step with me, it's a pretty safe bet you're assuming something about me that isn't true. I've felt my heart sink more than once as someone matter-of-factly told me what I should do. None of these answers--and I do mean NONE--helped. Many I had already tried, but the person talking was more interested in being right than they were in listening. You can only meet me where I am if you take time to listen to me and hear my heart.

3. Hearing about you
My struggles consume so much of my day. Distraction from me, from my own ongoing frustrations and doubts, is wonderful. If my pain won't recede enough for me to listen, please trust that I'll find a way to tell you. I haven't forgotten there's a wide world outside of me. I'm not self-centered enough to believe my life is more important than others'. I want to hear about YOU. Your wrestling matches can be just as vexing as mine in any given moment--mine just come in a different form. Don't assume I stopped caring about you.

4. Others' fruit
Most valuable of all are those under their own harrows--people who, like me, have good days and bad. People in pain actually don't talk about their pain much. We dig deeply into honesty. We get angry with God. We don't hand out answers to each other. We listen closely and watch body posture and facial expression. We know without being told when it's a hard day. Even when the hard days are behind us, we don't forget the moment by moment nature of life. We may talk about our own contentment or baffling gratitude in the midst of pain, but we never tell another person how they should feel or respond to theirs. Every life is unique; doesn't it follow that every path to productive purpose would also, then, be unique?

I believe in all of this that pain can be powerful and productive. I'm not saying my pain will do anything for you, but I believe with all my heart that it can be the making of me.

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