“Hope is engaged in the weaving of experience now in the process, or in other words, an adventure going forward.”
Yesterday I discussed with my doctor changing the frequency of one of my medications. This involved charting my reactions to the drug, a discussion with the doctor, who telephoned the specialist after appointment. Later in the day, the doctor rang me back with the conclusions of his discussion with the specialist. I had to explain all this to my wife when she came home from work. Today, I must collect a new prescription from the doctor’s surgery and take it to the pharmacist and discuss it with him.
Chronic illness is like that. It is so easy for the illness to become that the main preoccupation of my thinking, and relations with others.
The French philosopher Gabriel Marcel writes, “Thus there is a risk that illness will make of me that deformed creature, a catalogued and professionalised invalid, who thinks of himself as such and contracts in all respects, the habitus of illness. … In so far as I hope, I detach myself from this inner determinism.”
Living well with chronic illness requires making a fundamental choice about who I am. I can choose to be a person with chronic pain, a sick person, a “catalogued and professionalised invalid.” Alternatively, I can choose to be a full human being, not defined by my illness, or any other single characteristic, but seeking a balanced and rich life.
This choice must be made every day. I learn how to live well with my illness from my experience as a Christian disciple. The framework of my life includes the habit of Morning Prayer. Every morning I need to be reminded that “new every morning is the love” whose energy permeates my life. Every morning, I need to be reminded to choose God, to choose life rather than death, to choose to walk a creative path rather than to crawl in sin.
Every morning, I make the choice anew to live in the moment. How destructive it is to dwell in the past, or to worry in the future. “Hope is engaged in the weaving of experience now in the process, or in other words, an adventure going forward.” (Marcel again.)
This way of life is both practical and profoundly spiritual because it is both a more enjoyable and more integrated way for the mind/body/spirit to live.
The second century theologian Irenaeus saw the vision of the glory of God as people really alive (Gloria Dei vivens homo). Living with chronic pain need not reflect a disappointment with the Creator, making a mess of his creation. Living with chronic pain, when the creative path of living fully in the present moment is chosen, can truly glorify God.
“Let yourself go.” In the boys’ school where I worked, I was often part of the team that took groups of boys out into the bush on camps. One of the favourite activities was abseiling. We would find a suitable cliff in the bush, perhaps 10 metres high. The instructor would go to the top of the cliff with the boys. The other staff member and I stayed at the bottom ready to belay the abseilers as they came over the top.
This was a moment of great terror for the new boys. We would hear the instructor telling the lad how to put on his safety ropes and clamps. We would hear him coaxing the boy to walk backwards, “Just keep walking backwards. You can keep walking backwards over the cliff. Don’t worry, the ropes will hold you!” Then just as we could see the person beginning to overhang, we would hear the instructor, “Now just let yourself go!”
There is a moment of free-fall just as you overbalance the cliff and before the ropes slide to hold you. The boys used to describe that moment as sweet terror. I would shoot a video of each one as they came down the cliff to the base. We would show the film that evening. “That’s me!” each would shoot, “That’s when I went over.”
The abseiling became a rite of passage for several years. Each lad would remember a moment of terror followed by an experience of trustworthy ropes and belayers.
Dealing with chronic pain takes courage, too. And a lot of it is about trust, the kind of trust that “lets go”.
There is another kind of trust, which is trusting by hanging on. We think if we grit our teeth and hold on, we will prevail. But that kind of trust, the hanging on tight kind of trust, will ultimately fail. It’s trusting in oneself, in a person’s own ability to hang on. Arrive at a point where we can no longer hang on, and that trust is gone.
I tried to hang on when my chronic pain worsened in 2002. “God wants me in this demanding job,” I told myself, “so if I hang on to God, God will bring me through.” The problem was that I was trusting, not God, but my own ability to hang in there. In the end, my own ability was not enough.
When I remembered that moment of sweet terror in abseiling, I knew what I had to do. I resigned from my job at the end of 2003. That was a messy process. I tried to work from home as a consultant, and began to let go. When I found myself in hospital in 2004, not just once, but three times, I knew things were entirely out of my control. All I could do, and can do now, is sink into the trust. It is a matter of stepping backwards over the edge, into the unknown and the uncertainty, and waiting for the ropes and the clamps to gently take my weight.
There were boys who were not too good at abseiling. They would get started, and then be filled with fear. They grabbed hold of the main rope and tried to haul themselves up. Watching below, you could see they were safe – their rope supports were still in place – but their descent was awkward. They would swing into the face of the cliff, sometimes bruising an elbow. They would spin out of control, and only stop by tangling a foot in the rope. Sometimes they were jerked into a hanging position: given the position of the main clamp between their legs this was an uncomfortable manoeuvre. They still got down, but it was the hard way. The most elegant parts of their descent were still when they let go and let the system of ropes, clamps and pulleys gently bring them down.
I have to say that that still happens to me. I know the principle, but I still come down the hard way, the clumsy way. I begin to worry about finances, or about Centrelink, or about being able to travel far enough for family gatherings, and the moment I worry, my life jerks out of control again. I try to solve things by my own strength, sell some writing, perhaps, to help the income stream, or take a journey and suffer for it after.
‘Letting yourself go’ is not an easy thing to do. But having got to the top of the cliff and stepped over, I now know that it is possible. I need to find people who’ve abseiled themselves and ask for their encouragement. The more I let go, the more graceful my progress will be.
I am proud of the review by Ruth McIntyre in February’s Anglican Messenger. Her comments are generous. Read them below.
SUFFERERS OF chronic pain, and those who care for them, will find great comfort in this short book. It does not recommend throwing away the prescribed medication, but offers carefully described ways to make the most of a life that must be lived as well as possible.
As Ted Witham writes: Pain disables us. Pain takes us out of circulation – it seems to erect barriers between us and our families, our friends and our work. Pain imprisons us. At its worst, pain claims our total attention, and we can do nothing else but react in anguish.
How then to cope? In twelve steps, each detailing ways of understanding, Ted Witham offers his own experiences of meditation with exercises that will challenge other sufferers.
Refreshingly honest in approach, Living Well discusses the accompanying depression of chronic pain and suggests ways that will help to overcome it. Spiritual responses are thoughtfully underpinned with practical methods of approach.
Practical and emotional support is highly desirable and the writer has produced a manual to accompany the text. Walking the 12 Spiritual Steps with those in Chronic Pain: The Manual for spouses, friends and pastoral carers (Spirit-Ed 2008 ) is carefully and thoughtfully presented to help people closely involved with the affected person to gain increased knowledge and understanding. How is it possible to be truly helpful and supportive without impinging on the dignity and privacy of the person with chronic pain? What inner struggles are likely to be standing in the way of accepting the burden of pain and probably affecting the relationship?
Ted Witham, though a priest himself, places no great restrictions on the views of God held by those who seek help. There is room to develop knowledge and grace on this journey of pain and he shares his experiences, both practical and spiritual. as guides to enrich the lives of others. Relevant readings from the Scriptures are suggested for each of the steps.
Pain Management Programmes have the capacity to improve the patient’s quality of life, reduce suffering and distress and provide a more satisfactory lifestyle. They are not designed to eliminate pain or provide the patient with a cure. (Australian Pain Society: http://www.apsoc.org)
Ted Witham is equally realistic. His goal is abundant living – the best quality of life that is possible – and that will include taking part in some of the things patients want to do and activities that are important to them.
If chronic pain is a problem to you or someone you love, this book and its guide will prove invaluable.
It’s been an unpleasant surprise to me to find my movements so restricted by my pain. I was upset recently not to be able to travel 3 hours to the city for the interment of my goddaughter’s ashes. I even find it difficult to travel to Dunsborough 30 minutes away. Being ‘stuck at home’ means I have an excuse not to go to meetings. That’s generally good. The down side is that I can feel left out of the various organisations I belong to.
But the unpleasant surprise has been reduced by a gradual pleasant surprise. People are coming to see me about their Christian lives and ministries because I am at home and therefore have a largely empty calendar. They find it possible to fit me in their busy lives because I am here. I am here all the time.
This surprising availability to others has been a joy for me. Not only do my visitors bring me collegial company, but they also allow me to exercise my gifts of pastoral supervision and listening.
I have decided to name this surprise after one of the vows of the Benedictine monastic tradition. In addition to the three ‘Gospel’ vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, a Benedictine monk also makes a promise of ‘stability’ – to remain with this community for the rest of his life.
Stability is a protest against the busy running around most of us do in our work and in our family life. Monastic stability reminds the rest of us that being still, being less mobile, is a good thing. For monks, stability means that they can be found by God. But being a still point attracts others.
Unlike that of Benedictine monks, my immobility is not chosen. However, I can welcome it as stability, as a way that will bring me into different contact with people, as a way that links me more firmly to this little corner of my suburb, and as an opportunity where I might be found by God and so deepen my spirituality.
Reframing enforced immobility as chosen stability is a good thing to do with my brain.
Pain clinics usually have psychologists. That’s not because chronic pain is a mental illness, but because the mind has resources that can help us change the way we look at our pain. Pain psychologists are more like sports psychologists than ordinary psychologists. They are basically interested in getting us to perform better.
There are parallels between elite athletes and people with chronic pain. The most obvious is the necessity for exercise. To manage chronic pain we must be in training always. The type of exercise may vary depending on your level of disability, but I must have significant exercise every day to give the cardio-vascular system a work out.
At the moment, that means I start my walk with the ritual of calling the dog, getting her to sit and attaching her lead. Then we walk for 10-15 minutes. My next goal is to take a slightly different route that will add 5 minutes to my walk and conclude with a significant climb.
When summer comes, I take to the swimming pool and do ‘water-running’ and gradually build up my times and my effort. I’m currently on 4 x 50 metre laps, at just over 4 minutes a lap. My pulse and breathing rates get to near my safe limit, so I will continue doing 4 laps until my vital rates are lower. Then I will add a half-lap, and then another.
To do this properly requires a bit of obsession. I have to be disciplined like an athlete preparing for a big meet. To keep on track, I have to use my brain, and not only for exercise. Like an athlete, I use my brain to reframe and refine my attitudes. For example, the attitude that the world owes me is not a helpful attitude for an athlete or a person with long-term pain. My attitude needs to be not that I am owed anything, but that I have something to give, and I have the capacity to achieve.
Near the town where I live is a walking trail called The Bibbulmun Track. Named after the local aboriginal clan, the trail winds its way through most of the traditional Bibbulman lands. Walkers take up to 6 weeks to trek the length of the trail through jarrah and karri forests and coastland heath. From September to November, the wildflowers fill the bush with colour. The cool mornings of winter bring a crisp mist to the karri forests. I think it is the most beautiful country on earth.
For some time, I have not been able to walk on the Bibbulman track. It’s not that I want to walk from one end to the other. I would just like to be able to drive to a place where the trail intersects the highway and walk for three hours or so.
I am not physically able to manage that walk at present, but I use my brain to motivate my body to heal. I hold it up to myself as a goal. I set myself this goal as a participant in the Pain Understanding and Management Program at our local hospital. Now many months later, I am not much closer to my goal. But having the goal has kept me walking every day. Having the goal has increased my appreciation of our own native garden.
My brain can heal my body, and I like getting the most out of it.
The worst thing that the Western church has done is that we have turned God into a man. Ask any six-year-old to draw God, and she will emulate Michelangelo and draw an old man with a white beard. The orthodox Christians, the Jews and Muslims have taken much more notice of the second commandment: “Thou shall not make of the Lord thy God any graven image.” (Exodus 20:4).
We may not believe that God is literally a human being, but we picture a transcendent God in physical terms. Children may believe God is the “Friend for little children//Above the bright blue sky” in an absolute literal sense, and adults often believe transcendence describes God’s distance from the physical creation.
It’s true that the Bible often anthropomorphosises God: God walks out before the armies of Israel; God picks up and cuddles the human person, like a mother and baby (Hosea 11:3-4). In general, however, the Bible has a sophisticated notion that God is (a) holy, that is set apart from his creation, and (b) intimately involved in creation.
God is a wind (Genesis 1:3), an unseen and uncontrollable energy that stirs up of the raw materials of creation. God “sits above” the thunder and lightning (Psalm 39), more powerful than the raw energy of the storm. God stills the seas (Psalm 65:7), not with a giant hand, but with an irresistible will.
If you have chronic pain, your picture of God matters. If you think God is a sophisticated human upgrade, if you make God in the image of human beings, your God will not be strong enough to make a difference to your pain. Your picture of God will limit your ability to receive the powerful healing God wants for you.
In the last ten or so years, my picture of God has changed radically.
Sometimes this journey has been dangerous. I have wondered if I have lost my faith. The God I had believed in was not big enough, and certainly not powerful enough to positively affect my pain, and I had to let go of that picture of God.
In Peter Jackson’s 2001 film, The Lord of the rings: the Fellowship of the Ring, an underground sequence has the wizard Gandalf confronting a Balrog on a crumbling rock bridge. The hobbits run as fast as possible to get to safety. Gandalf falls with the monster to their death. Growing your faith in God is like that rush across the bridge of Khazad-dûm. When you let go of your picture of God, everything crumbles and precious ideas die.
But let me encourage you. The only way to have a picture of God adequate to your pain is to stop believing in the God you think you know. There is a well-trodden path to this believing atheism, and it is the path of mysticism.
1. Any picture of God you have is by definition too small. To continue to believe in it is to commit idolatry. You have no choice but to let go your picture of God.
2. When you let go of God in this way, you become an atheist in the sense that you have no God to hang on to. What you must then believe is that God is hanging on to you. You cannot know what manner of God this is, you need to trust only that you are being held.
“Blessed be the Lord day by day,
who bears us as his burden;
he is the God of our deliverance,” says the Psalmist (68:19)
3. As this trust develops, so you may begin to grope towards a new understanding of the God who is holding you. You may for example, begin to find new metaphors to describe God. God is energy; God is universal heartbeat, God lives as the tiniest cell in living things. These God-cells begin a process of healthy change in your body, and your pain is reduced.
4. But these are again pictures of God. The irony is that the process of letting go of your new pictures of God must continue.
In the audio for this session, I invite you to image a Spirit, a larger reality and to open yourself to encounter this Spirit. In this process, you may experience the reality of how deeply you are loved, how surely you are held, and how extraordinary is your future in this compassionate universe. This is what I call, and only for convenience’ sake, “contemplation”, the experience beyond muscle relaxation and centring.
I invite you to relax further into this journey into the Unknown God. I encourage along the only path through deeper atheism, which as it unfolds leads to a deeper experience of the power of God in healing your mind/body.