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Inside NCR

Pain as tutor: lessons from the floor

I lied to you. Managing Editor Tom Roberts and I debated which lie I should tell. I suggested saying I was away on assignment, but Roberts said readers would then expect a payoff -- people on assignment are expected to deliver a story. "We'll say you're on vacation," Roberts suggested. I wasn't too excited about trumpeting another vacation, especially one I wasn't having, but at least I wouldn't have to bring back a story. So the vacation scenario is what the little box said on page two (NCR, Sept. 19).

The truth is, I was under the weather. Ill. Sick. The words seem so dry and brittle on the page -- no wonder we didn't want to use them. Illness is so common, such a lame excuse for anything. I recall being intrigued, when the Vatican II reforms came out, that we were all eligible for the newly named Sacrament of the Sick because, bottom line, we're all sick in one way or another.

But announcing one's illness can sound like self-pity -- that's the real reason I didn't want to trumpet it. Hard to know when one is sick enough to tell others and from how many rooftops to shout it.

Worse still, my problem wasn't even dramatic. About six years ago, my back went bad. A typical story of tests and therapies, until there was nothing left but surgery. Three days beforehand, however, the pain stopped. My wife still claims it was fear of the knife that put the pain to flight, which I deny. For six years, my back behaved.

Then in late August, when beautiful fall beckoned, things came crashing down. As is typical with backs: People usually end up on the floor. I had been careless and thick; ignored the usual advice; lifted heavy stuff. Then, on a day when the pain returned, I mowed the lawn, one of those lawns that goes uphill from every direction. I had, I confess, been secretly congratulating myself that I could do it with the same speed and gusto as when I was 20. Trouble is, I had no lawn when I was 20 -- another instance of youth being wasted on the young.

Around 4 on a Thursday morning I was driven out of bed by the pain. I hit the floor four times, in the manner just alluded to, before reaching the kitchen and the Bufferin. Then I hit the floor for good. On a sheet. With a pillow. For about three weeks I came to know those few square feet very well, and every fiber of the miserable old carpet underneath. A helpless, unpromising little world.

This is where one starts rubbing shoulders with ignoble self-pity. I was never sure whether I was commendably brave or a despicable coward. There is no objective standard for pain, no measure. If you've won Olympic gold, people recognize a certain standard. If you get life in jail, that too hints at a certain objectivity. Meanwhile, for a week or more, I was just in pain. Really bad pain. I would think: I must be near the limit here because if it gets any worse I'll pass out. Perhaps that's the standard: When you pass out, you can say without being a softy that you and real pain went toe to toe. At press time I have not yet passed out.

Pain is elusive in many other ways. This, for one thing, was supposed to be back trouble, but most of my pain went down the leg. And with the pain, or the pills, came nausea and other peripherals -- as Zorba the Greek would say, the full catastrophe. Such as loneliness during sleepless nights; or plain helplessness; or the suspicion of being a burden in a world geared to efficiency; of being, ultimately, a boring, irrelevant old heap on the floor. An old heap without answers.

God made the world interesting.

Wallow as I might in self-pity, I knew there were millions worse off than myself. I think of them from time to time. Most people do -- we can't force them out all the time. We all came from the same clotted clay, somewhere between the Big Bang and today, and few of us go through our allotted years unscathed. This is a pitch to pray, with whatever suppliant hands we have left to raise between Earth and heaven, for all the suffering but especially the forgotten or unloved suffering.

From my bivouac on the floor I could hear the TV man tell of a town in some Third World country where hundreds were trapped under rubble, in pain, probably ferocious pain. My own pain kept driving them out of my mind, but they kept coming back.

Closer to home, I am reminded of friends and others I know who, measure for measure, are more ill than I. And bearing it better. Humorous and joyful, often. There is no category for such people, each forged in the crucible of their particular circumstances. Snatches of heroism and sanctity still keeping the world going round.

Those who have not been through it have a hard time understanding real pain. This is not a plea for a new divine dispensation with pain as novitiate. It's a plea to cut people with pain a little slack. Of course they might be faking it, but cut them slack anyway.

When suffering gets bad enough, there is an urge to not care whether we die or not; indeed, maybe an urge to go the extra mile. Yet life has rigged up our spirits in an extraordinary way so that, when a little respite comes, hope returns and the will to carry on. Thus, however much women suffer at childbirth, they then put the pain behind them, and usually forge ahead eventually for more of the same.

For now, most of my pain is behind me. As nausea and other discomforts recede, what I feel is a great peacefulness. For an occasional good half-hour it is an unspeakable peacefulness, a contentment, a bliss, when I am able to love foe and friend and tolerate all the untidy vicissitudes that make the world so crazy.

I feel this good because I don't have the old pain. Then I realize, that's how good I have felt most of my life: healthy and content and without pain. But I took it for granted, presumed it was my right.

Some readers will say I've been taking too many of my own pills, that it's just euphoria having a good day. Many others, who have been down the painful road, will know what I mean.

-- Michael Farrell

National Catholic Reporter, October 3, 1997