I am not special.
According to the American Chiropractic Association, one-half of all Americans report having back pain each year, and globally, low back pain is the leading cause of disability. In a way, this is good news for those of us who have it because as I heard a neurologist say once, you don’t want to be interesting to your doctor. Back pain is one of the most boring conditions around. It’s just that it can beat the crap out of you.
I’m grateful to my back pain, because it helped me write God in the Dark, half of which is about suffering. I’m grateful, but I’d like to look back on it fondly, not have to get intimate with it all over again. It’s a low-level nuisance I’ve learned to live with, but occasionally it gets all excited and forces itself into the center of my existence, and this is one of those times. The MRI showed I have a new rebel disk that’s joined the others in venturing out where it’s not supposed to go. It’s a bit like raising teenagers: they test the boundaries by violating them and then taunt you from the other side.
So when my husband was out of town for a week and it was just me, God and the pain, I did what any spiritually mature person would do: I spent a lot of time crying and most of the rest of it swearing and throwing things. The pain and sense of vulnerability forced me back to a question I wrestled with in God in the Dark: How can God take my pain seriously when there’s the Israel-Palestine conflict, refugee children detained at our border, and Ebola bustin’ out all over West Africa? Can I believe that God really gives a damn about my pain?
That’s when I noticed something I learned last time: Just feeling guilty about the relative insignificance of my pain turned my gaze to those whose suffering is greater. I thought about them more, and with greater empathy. I prayed for them more. Though a confirmed First World Princess, I felt that pain connected us somehow. We have the shared experience of being unable to control something scary.
Rita Kowats’ “How Does a Mystic Suffer?” captures this beautifully. Go to her blog “Spirituality Without Borders” and read the whole thing. But here’s the part I’m hanging onto:
The mystic knows that whatever the suffering is, it is. Her spiritual practice is to recognize that this experience of suffering is somehow connected to other events in the universe, and in the scheme of things, it matters. He strives to be faithful and true to the process of living through it. Instead of escaping from suffering, mystics embrace the reality of the experience. They live it from inside the presence of God, vulnerable, clean and stripped to their essence. They hold themselves together while training a vigilant eye toward grace.
Mystics are people who see God with special clarity, and their job is to help the rest of us see better. So I am going to trust that the connection is real, and try to live this scary moment in the presence of God, who makes everything holy and clean. Even our pain.