People who have suffered and who have chosen a positive attitude toward life are a model and a source of hope to fellow human beings who are hurting now. This applies to all kinds of suffering.
In Man’s Search for Meaning, author Victor Frankl tells how the Jews who survived the death camps were different from those who fell and couldn’t get up and were sent to the ovens. These people who survived had a purpose, a vision of someone or something they held onto. They had hope, and a specific hope. Those with no one or nothing to return to died.
As strange as it sounds, it can also apply to those of us who suffer with chronic pain.
My Purpose: how I survived my chronic pain
As a boy, I had a vision for my life. I wanted to be like Don Bosco and help orphaned boys, or be like Saint Francis of Assisi and minister to the outcasts. Seeing myself as “healer” and believing one day that I would be has been the important vision for my entire life. I’m 72 now.
That I lived 40 years as a counselor, psychotherapist, and social worker working with the most disturbed and outcast members of society seems to me proof that a vision saved me, gave purpose to my life, dissolved the negative, and freed me to work healing arts. I seemed to have a destiny that was greater than me as an individual. A vocation. I was “called” to help and to heal those who suffered. This calling saved my life.
I cannot estimate the number of persons I touched directly and indirectly in my role as a therapist, healer, helper, teacher, and community organizer. Some years I reached thousands of individuals, and most years several hundreds of persons. I may have been feeling like I was dying and in severe pain, but I never missed work, never missed an appointment or meeting. I tried to never let my illness dictate the terms of my life’s work, my vocation.
Why do I underline the importance of my vision for my life? Because I live with significant physical and psychic pain. I cannot remember being free of either the physical or the mental pain; and more often than not, a sense of restlessness and alienation. Maybe listing the stepping stones of my personal challenge in life would help you understand my message.
Stepping Stones: key moments in my story
- At 12 I was inducted into the Knights of the Altar and was awarded the highest rank, Honor Guardsman. Our duty was to guard the altar against all heresy and evil. I remember holding a censor emitting clouds of incense smoke as a light drizzle fell on rows of Knights of Columbus in red and black capes, swords drawn making an archway. Giant black and red grasshoppers, hundreds of them, walked slowly across the entire cemetery in the rain. The incense and a coffin with someone’s beloved daughter. I served at a funeral a week for years as I lived across the street from the church. In retrospect, I realize what comfort and solace we provided the families and other survivors.
- At 14 I became a counselor in an all-boys summer camp, and worked there for three summers during high school. I was counselor for the 11-year-old boys when I was 14, then each year my kids were a year older. Homesick and frightened children needed a calming voice.
- Simultaneously I was a seminarian and was appointed sacristan. I had a secret clubhouse under the church in an old abandoned dark room. It was where the guys who felt lost and wanted to run away would gather to smoke.
- I met a Flamenco guitar teacher and became a professional Flamenco guitarist. LSD and hallucinogens abounded. Estan, my teacher, was a shaman. Playing guitar for hours a day so no one knew how much pain I was in. I lived in a surrealistic world similar to Carlos Castaneda.
- At 20 I was given a full paid scholarship to earn my MFA in Creative Writing. Making A’s, I still felt pain and loneliness. I would phone my spiritual director long distance night after night.
- I began psychoanalysis. Reading all the psychiatric and psychoanalytic literature in the medical library at the vast psychiatric hospital where I got a job as Institution Counselor, I still couldn’t sleep and had fire running through my veins. But I forgot my pain during the work hours around the screaming schizophrenic patients whose hallucinations were terrifying and which no medicines would ease.
- At 25 I earned a Masters of Social Work, MSW and in 1976 was licensed in Louisiana and nationally. I worked with the poor in New Orleans ghettos, those with AIDS in the French Quarter, and countless patients in mental hospitals.
- At 27 I began teaching meditation and writing in retreats around the country. I was fine while working, helping others, but my terror did not subside, my pain continued to worsen.
- I retired at 60 and had three novels published and two short stories. As an artist I had several paintings commissioned and painting became my main activity in life.
I tell you this because I want you to understand how I endured my life filled with pain. I believe if I had not been dedicated to the well-being of others I would not have survived. Here’s how it was for me. Maybe you find some of yourself in these few words.
Estimate Your Pain
Before you read further pause and do this self-check. Think about yourself a minute.
Reflect on your life, your whole life, and come up with an estimate of how much pain and suffering you have had in your life. Once you have that image, let me tell you a little more of the story about my life.
First a little commentary about my pain: I was physically brutalized as a child. My insane brother beat me at times. I was seduced by the priest who took me on weekend visits to his mother’s home. With one bed, it seemed like years.
The length of time you know pain has a dramatic impact upon its meaning for you.
Then in the monastic school, the seminary, little monks we were, I was violently raped at 14.
It is reasonable to expect relief from pain but if a pain or cause for suffering is “ever present” then the pain itself takes on an identity and a life of its own and demands that you engage it on a variety of psychic, physical, and social levels simultaneously.
Name Your Pain
I’m not going to develop an in-depth argument about the meaningfulness of pain and suffering at this time, maybe in the future, but for now I want to point to the QUANTITY of pain one might experience, and the DURATION of pain as two quantitative aspects of suffering that we can measure. The amount/quantity of your pain, and the duration of your suffering/pain combine to make an image you can relate to and to NAME A PAIN or NAME YOUR SUFFERING helps ease it for a while.
I remember seeing Victor Frankl on stage in front of an audience of 5,000 people in the River Gate Convention Center in New Orleans, saying, “To see pain mean anything helps heal the pain.”
If I were talking to you as a long-distance runner, and you and I were familiar with marathons we’d shared together, and I said, “You’ll never beat my time!” You would not think this an odd thing for me to say, we’re racers, right? Let me replace running with chronic pain.
I think I’ve been in chronic pain since about 1950, and although there have been some days without intense pain, I would be honest if I said 40% of the time in my life I had to deal with major pain.
I do not kid myself. No matter how severe my pain may be there is someone who suffers twice as much. That’s why it is absurd to say, “I have had more pain than you.”
I want you to enter the equation. You the reader. I want you to contemplate how many days of your life you have had significant pain, and report to yourself in terms of a “number”: “pain/day”. What is the mass of pain you have experience handling?
Empathy is often mentioned when discussions of healing some emotional or psychological wound take place. It is revered as something helpful, however it is not just being empathetic that is healing but the factor that must be present for healing to occur is “ACCURATE EMPATHY” i.e. sensitivity to what others feel and think is increased.
In order to experience how another feels we have to have a foundational familiarity with the gamut of human emotions, one must be able to “walk a mile in the moccasins of the other.”
My point about empathy (which is a comment about healing wounded and broken people) is that accurate empathy must be present for healing to happen. You are more likely to be good at empathy if you have experienced a full range of human experience, from the best experiences and peak experiences all the way down the continuum to suffering and pain and humiliation, and loss. I do not recommend that people go out and try to suffer and experience pain. But if you happen to have had suffering and pain on a large scale then you have an advantage in being a conduit for healing to reach others.