Listening to our pain
The Buddha taught that one of the four basic facts of existence is that suffering is endemic to human life. Some suffering is avoidable, e.g., annual flu shots reduce the likelihood of suffering from the flu. Some suffering is reducible or curable, e.g., apologizing to a friend whom one has alienated by insulting may lead to reconciliation and renewed friendship. Other suffering is inevitable, e.g., the knowledge that death limits life. Consequently, relationships inevitably cause suffering even though life without relationships is empty and itself a source of suffering, as Buddhist and Christian hermits consistently experienced.
Instead of seeking to end all suffering, which the Buddhas identified as the goal of enlightenment, Jesus taught that suffering can be redemptive if one grows through her/his suffering. I have experienced this growth through the suffering caused by my neuropathy.
Neuropathy (a disease or dysfunction of the peripheral nerves – in my case, in my hands, lower legs, and feet) has been an adverse side effect of the chemotherapy that put my cancer into remission. Sadly, chemo is not neuropathy’s only cause. Diabetics, for example, may also suffer from neuropathy.
At times, the pain from my neuropathy has been sufficiently intense to prevent me from sleeping. No cure exists for neuropathy. Instead, the best option is to manage the pain through anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen, drugs originally intended to prevent seizures, and narcotics including opioids.
Thankfully, my neuropathy is slowly diminishing and I am using fewer drugs to manage my discomfort. Coping with the neuropathy has prompted two lines of thought.
First, my lower legs, ankles, and feet have felt tightly bound as if by an invisible ace bandage. The feeling triggered an associative jump to the ancient Chinese practice of binding women’s feet to indicate high social status and an inability to move normally. Foot binding is not unlike the contemporary Islamist insistence that women garb themselves completely so that no part of their body is visible other than the eyes. Both practices reduce women to objects possessed by men. These practices are equivalent in meaning to the query in many Christian traditions of asking “who gives this woman to this man?” in wedding ceremonies, a question that today’s clergy rightly refuse to include in wedding ceremonies.
Women are people, fully worthy of the same dignity and respect as men.
Too often, men pay only lip service to that declaration of equality. The President of the US apparently has a personal history of groping women, i.e., treating them as sex objects – the evidence supporting this allegation is very strong even though unproven in a court of law. Concomitantly, women are generally paid less than men for performing the same or comparable work in spite of some progress over the last several decades towards equality.
The discomfort that the neuropathic illusion of having bound feet and ankles has caused me has been a powerful reminder of the injustice that so many women experience daily day.
Second, my neuropathy has caused a variety of problems in my hands. Among these problems have been sharp stabbing pains, constant tingling, severe cramping, loss of control, and a deadening of sensation. In the beginning, the pain substantially disturbed my life, particularly by sharp pain that disrupted or prevented sleep. The problems also partially disabled me, degrading my fine motor control and thereby limiting my ability to write, type, button clothes, etc.
As the pain, tingling, and numbing diminished and I slowly regain some of my lost fine motor control, I have discovered that I am more constantly aware of my body and have increased empathy for people who live with disabilities.
Additionally, my personal appreciation for the idea a person is his or her body has grown significantly. Thoughts, feelings, and physiology are inherently and inseparably linked. Neuropathy has a physical basis (diseased or dysfunctional nerves) that can produce a mental illusion discordant with other perceived aspects of reality. For me, illustratively, this has included not only the sensation of bound feet but also an incapacity to discern by feeling alone whether I have succeeded in picking up a small object or whether an object that I am touching is hot or cold.
Testing the coherence of ideas and feelings with other perceptions of reality arguably allows a person to best conceptualize, albeit tentatively, self and the world. Philosophically this testing is foundational for pragmatism, a view at odds with a priori philosophies that emphasize seeking knowledge solely through cognitive processes.
Pragmatism fits the American ethos nicely, emphasizing the practical instead of an unobtainable ideal. I find the path to the abundant life lies in trying to live in a creative tension between the pragmatism of what is possible and the unreachable ideals (at least in this life) that Christianity identifies as aspects of the perfected life, e.g., perfect love, hope, and faith (the theological virtues) and justice, courage, prudence, and temperance (the cardinal virtues).
Is the suffering that you experience redemptive and the source of growth or does it destructively limit your ability to love and to live joyfully?