Pain “plunges like a sword through creation.” — Evelyn Underhill
You awake at 4:00 a.m and find that your constant, compelling pain has backed away from you. Yesterday they had inserted a new, larger drain into your buttock, and now some things are different. The searing, clinging pain has let go. It’s not entirely gone, it still shadows you, but you’ll settle for this — for now.
After forty days and forty nights of captivity you’re suddenly able to concentrate; you can write again. And, O sweet liberation, you can bend and stretch once more! The days of having to perform a dervish dance just to get into your underwear are behind you. You can leave off the complicated strategizing around life’s simplest maneuvers — getting up from bed, climbing out of the car, tying your shoes, half-sitting at the dinner table until you can’t take it any more. No longer do you feel the need to be sensitive to every enervated muscle and tender bone in your stricken body.
You’ve got some breathing room now, and as you look back, you ask yourself what this pain has meant for you. Your immediate conclusion: the pain itself has no ‘meaning’ beyond serving as a warning that something is wrong physically. You won’t credit all that misery with some transcending moral or spiritual value. It is just plain pain —crippling, confining, confounding affliction, to be contended with as you can, endured as you must.
But even as you regard all the discomfort and distress of this desert experience as nothing but detritus and dross, you recognize that the experience itself, the necessity of bearing the pain, of coming through it to some new place, has become for you something of a school for compassion. That is because infirmity is the great leveler of us all. No one gets through life without suffering. The pain you’ve endured is in some way akin to the anguish every human being inevitably experiences.
The hidden offering of your long, slow dance with pain, if you can see and accept the gift, is its capacity to attune you to the distress of others. It equips you to respect and to respond to another’s misery and to their longing for encouragement. Pain speaks to pain and in it you recognize our unvarnished, needy, shared humanity.