Magazine article The Christian Century

Hope for Hurting Bodies

Magazine article The Christian Century

Hope for Hurting Bodies

Article excerpt

YEARS AGO, I encountered a graphic crucifix in an old Mexican church. It was too kitschy to elicit holy horror; the gashes on Christ's face and body looked more cartoonish than redemptive. I am glad I never pushed the image from my mind, though. It has become for me a sort of icon of the banality of pain--even divine pain. For all the competing theories of atonement, there is a singular fact about the crucifixion: it hurt like hell.

I was still in elementary school the first time I woke up with a stiff neck, and I have grappled with bouts of severe neck and back pain ever since. When I was 22, a chiropractor glanced at my X-ray and told me I had the spine of a middle-aged man. I've sprained my back by carrying an amplifier and lifting a canoe. I've suffered through postpartum spasms that were worse than actual childbirth. Once I ended up on bedrest for days because I sneezed wrong. I've seen physical therapists and pain specialists, gotten monthly massages and an inconclusive MRI. I've swallowed painkillers so strong I couldn't hold them down, and I've fretted about whether doctors will think I'm an addict if I appear too desperate for Demerol.

In her classic essay on migraines--another excruciating and mysterious affliction--Joan Didion remarks, "That no one dies of migraine seems, to someone deep into an attack, an ambiguous blessing." There have been times when I could almost consent to this terrible sentiment. When the pain comes, the only thing I want--the only thing I am capable of wanting, it seems--is for it to leave.

"Whatever else it does," writes Barbara Brown Taylor, "pain offers an experience of being human that is as elemental as birth, orgasm, love, and death." For this reason I've often pondered--not in the throes of spasms, but before the last twinges have faded away--the relationship between pain and incarnation. The story goes that God got a body, a body that grew in a mother's womb and suckled at a mother's breast. The body of a boy: a boy who skinned his knees and got too much sun and went through puberty. The body of a man: a man who knew the pleasures of food and wine, a man who may not have known a woman but nevertheless knew what it felt like for a woman to pour precious oil on his feet and rub it in with her hair. A man who was beaten and crucified and pierced with a sword.

Last spring, I was at a conference when one of my familiar afflictions descended. The constellation of knots that line my neck and shoulders is uncomfortable and immobilizing--turning my head becomes instantly impossible--but the knots aren't debilitating. I was still able to participate, albeit gingerly.

One night at dinner, a friend noticed when I winced. I long ago learned that my aches and pains are boring to other people (my apologies), so I admitted the condition and quickly changed the subject. She changed it back. The whole table listened as she shared a bit of testimony: after years of severe back pain, she read a book by John Sarno and, upon fully accepting his mind-body philosophy, had experienced healing.

Sarno's theory is fairly simple. Some pain has physiological roots: tom muscles, broken bones, slipped discs. But other pain is psychogenic, real pain provoked by underlying stress: repressed anger, subconscious anxiety. Certain personalities are more susceptible to psychogenic back pain. …

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