A while back I laid my bike down. In the days and weeks following, I wrote about it and told some folks and didn’t tell others and then told everybody and now it’s old news. It wasn’t foolishness; I just needed to be stopped in my tracks and crashing my motorcycle did just that. Virginia was hurt (Virginia is in my life to remind me to overcome my zeal to change people), the bike was hurt (read pride and dollars here), and I was hurt, embarrassed, shocked, angry, interrupted in my plans, and generally reined in hard for a bit. After assessing the more glaring consequences of the crash (there are no accidents), I delved for subtler messages and even looked for something to celebrate about it all.
I had been living a life of self-distraction, of knowing what needed doing and not doing it. I discovered the limits of notions I had regarding speed, strength, and sex. I was compelled to examine my personas: father, lover, bodybuilder, massage practitioner, artist/craftsman, writer, zealot, etc. My injuries gave me a fresh appreciation for pain and this has helped me in my massage work. My shoulder whispers and I listen (and I breathe into those muscles whenever I remember). Since the crash, I’ve come to accept that people create pain and that I can’t just go in and press a few points and release them from it. People need to come to terms with their imbalance. I simply give them a free space in which to work. And the crash has given me that same space.
Part of my job is to work with people who are dying or grieving. Their pain is indescribable, and although I know the right questions to ask and the right techniques to use, I am increasingly clear that I have only the vaguest idea of what is actually happening to them.
My personal bargain with death is a simple one: I’ll surround myself with death and grief — with murders, suicides, infant deaths, cancer deaths, car accidents — all of it, if you will leave me out of it. I’ll pay my dues now, if you won’t take me — ever.
Of course I have a fallback position. If I must die, then give me a bottom line guarantee that it’s not too bad.
Bargains aside, I’ve observed that the pain of grief does lessen over time, just like all the well-meaning people say at funerals. That, at first, it’s a constant bombardment of tears, guilt, “if only’s,” answerless questions, and gut-wrenching physical pain. Later, months later, the pain hits just as hard, only less frequently. Stuffing the pain inside only makes it worse. I’ve watched people perched clearly between a rock and a hard place: it hurts to grieve; it hurts not to. The pain appears to lessen only for those who choose to actively grieve, to go down to the raw places most of us spend our lives trying to avoid, and to touch those places again and again until, finally, the sensitivity begins to fade. Still, that’s a very small carrot on a very long stick.
San Jose, California
I could write about losing my mother when I turned 21. But there’s little to say; the change of life when you are no one’s child is known by those who’ve passed through it and avoided by those still attached.
Instead, I’ll write about the time I lost my hair. It began with a quarter-sized white patch of scalp on the side of my head discovered by my man. We were coming out of the store, having bought things for his new house since we were breaking up our housekeeping. Trying to pull apart and have a companionable split meant much submerged pain and anger. At the time I had difficulty distinguishing between being civil and servile and so was keeping a lot down, trying not to choke on it. At least part of it was my Southern upbringing, being cordial before all else. We were good at ignoring the emotional elephants in the room while salting the peanuts. It had taken a while to pry myself away, sex being the tie that bound us.
So, there I was, having hardly raised my voice and looking like I was snatched bald during an argument. Ah, the body has a voice of its own. Fortunately I looked good in scarfs, so as the spot spread to the size of the palm of my hand I took to wearing them all the time. My hair was everywhere — on my pillow, down the sink, in the towel. A co-worker said kiddingly, “You know, you’ve been looking like a gypsy. I haven’t seen the top of your head in months. You going bald or something?” and went slack-jawed when I said, “Yep, you got it. It’s a temporary defoliation.”
I did go to the doctor and in the midst of his bland reassurances as to the relatively common and minor nature of the situation I remembered my mother, five years before, going through chemotherapy and then having to wear a wig. We had talked about how her hair would grow back curly and she wouldn’t need a permanent. She didn’t live long enough to find out. The tears started then. Neither the doctor nor I knew what to do about the tears, so he told me not to worry and prescribed an ointment, his only available substitute for a heart salve.
By now, 13 years later, what is over are the dreams of loss, grief, or worse, her return — being flooded with relief that she wasn’t dead after all only to wake up with a sensation of having fallen fast and hard back to the truth. Now there is only a rare dream appearance of her as a beneficent guiding force. I still miss hearing her name, Genevieve. It’s never spoken, never read, rare enough to be a singular family heirloom put away with the other relics of her generation. Named for the song, “Sweet Genevieve,” she was called Baby Doll while growing up and long afterwards. My grandfather was 60 when my mother was born so for him she was the proof of the pudding as well as the apple of his old eye. There is no one to name after her. My sisters have boys and I’m childless by choice. It seems a self-indulgence to name an animal Genevieve just for the sound of it when calling at mealtime.
And the other losses? The baldness lasted about four months. It took more time to purge my heart of that smoky love.
At 33, in this age of the bomb, crime, precarious economic stability, in this age of ages, I’ve been through a lot. Indeed, I’ve been through hell a number of times. Three nervous breakdowns, two of them incredibly bad: catatonic schizophrenia, treated by electroshock.
Insanity not only is caused by pain, it also generates pain, especially when one is dimly aware of the falsity of one’s delusions. You hear voices or you think people can hear your own thoughts, and you know that’s all absolutely ridiculous, but all the same you hear those voices or you’re terrified people will know your thoughts. There’s a vicious circle of pain at work, hence the high recidivism rate, the tendency for people once afflicted by schizophrenic psychosis to never get well again, never get past the halfway house.
But I think I’ve licked the problem. I’ve learned that nobody ever goes crazy (barring a rare organic cause) without a lot of pain that he or she can’t cope with. I’m happier now than ever before in my adult life, and that third breakdown I had was the mildest and occurred more than five years ago. I work hard and like what I’m doing, and I’m in love with a wonderful woman.
Three lessons I have learned from the pain: unselfishness, honesty, and spirituality.
During my teens and early twenties, before my breakdowns, I led a selfish, immature life. Little or no political involvement, despite an excellent education. Lots of drug use — just marijuana or hash, but they can be psychologically addicting and I was addicted. Immature sexuality — e.g., porn use. Selfishness.
With regard to honesty, I’ve learned that it’s a virtue as basic and necessary as love of neighbor. Honesty with self is vital for mental health. One can’t ostrich-like bury one’s head in the sand. Such denial is at the root of all delusion. Even concerning the pain of others, a lie is always a mistake (although I’d not volunteer a painful fact). The liar is a manipulator and a coward. As Adrienne Rich has observed, the liar “leads an existence of unutterable loneliness. . . . The lie is a short-cut through another’s personality.” And lying to others means you’re going to lie to yourself.
I never understood the importance of honesty until I realized my need for God. Before my breakdowns, no conscious need could emerge. I guess my superego would not permit it; in my background (including friends at college), God was dead. But now that I’m a Christian, I realize that reverence for truth is love of God, Creator of truth.
My own spiritual growth path has been difficult because the two things that bothered me most before and during my breakdowns were sex and religion. I remember sharp shame at age 20 that I was still a virgin. I also remember denouncing “fornication” in my psychotic days.
There’s a school of psychiatry which holds there’s a cognitive cure for depression: the cure may involve unlearning a sense of helplessness, but even then the focus is on cognition. I think that’s true for schizophrenia, too, though there the search for truth may well be gut-wrenchingly difficult.
Mental health for me means trying to reconcile a deep belief in the Bible as the word of God with a deep need for sexual freedom. That seems like a contradiction, but with hard intellectual work and with the help of one’s friends, Christianity and sexual freedom can be reconciled — “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness shall be filled.”
Pain is something one can’t run away from. Freedom lies in confronting and in overcoming. I think I’ve overcome. I’ve lost everything — and that gives me the courage to keep on risking everything. I’ve been down to zero, down to the ground: flat broke, living in the ghetto, friends with winos, and mugged or at least held up lots of times. And, at another time and place, in another space and face and grace, totally, totally bonkers.
So I’m not going to manipulate anybody to hold on to the happiness I’ve got now. In spirit, I am poor. And yet I am rich. Being vulnerable myself, I can respond to the vulnerability in others.
Mind, body, heart, soul, and spirit too — each one has its own kind of pain.
The toothache is sharp, intense, and throbbing. Influenza grips you with a chill, dizziness, a general weakness, the inability to concentrate. A dislocated knee holds you motionless with surprise and disbelief even as you sit grasping your leg, unable to speak, tears forming as a huge wave of suffering surges over you like a shout in the void. This is physical pain. It happens to us when our body has been insulted with carelessness, an accident, or someone’s malignant intentions. Physical pain happens. How it affects us, however, takes us to the other side of the equation — what we do with the pain.
What we do with physical pain depends largely on the case that we are trying to build in an attempt to justify who and what we are. This is a very curious process. It begins with the universal sentiment that pain is totally unjustified and unmerited. It is a vicissitude — endured but never desired. We run away from pain the way we avoid a grizzly on our path. At least, so our good sense would tell us. And there’s the rub. For some reason or other, there’s a part of us — the one that is broken or cast out — that wants to be acknowledged. Its language is outrage, compensation, revenge, a score to settle. We run away from it like the plague but this pain is insistent, commanding. In the darkness of our own egos, this pain has a light and a clarity that can obsess and enlist our cooperation.
Hitler knew of such a pain. He even gave it a name. And this act — so full of magic — gave an entire people the opportunity to deal with what had been a nameless shadow, an oppressive sense of despair, albeit at the expense of the Jewish race.
This is the unconscious solution to the problem of pain. It is unconscious because the pain itself is never addressed. We name the pain, elevate it to a symbol — at first an issue, later a crusade with its heroes and martyrs, traitors and followers. The pain — really a warning signal telling us of our dividedness — acquires a life of its own from the strength of our resistance. While we call it ugly, brutal, monstrous and reject it, the pain will multiply, grow, until it is faced, as in the story of King Arthur, even in a son.
For there is a sense in which pain is created. We need to do just that, in a way, to make our own brokenness clear and obvious. Our fear of wholeness makes the pain diabolical, a trickster who scoffs at all our efforts. Yet, at the same time, our own imperative for wholeness tells us to face the fear and the monster itself will kneel and bow down. Surrender the fear and the pain itself will flow into time and pass.
Our pains, therefore, work in the service of wholeness. They persist only as long as we reject transcendence. The rejection is explained, given plausible origins, linked with oppressors. The pattern is quite predictable once understood. Yet once the reaction pattern takes hold, becomes automatic, only another kind of pain can shock us back into awareness and make the old complex come to light. Initially we blame someone or something for the knowledge we did not want.
Knowing this much, what then should we do? Knowledge cannot aspire to wisdom unless implemented somehow.
We can resist the impulse to react to our own and other’s pain in a judgmental fashion. We can feel and listen and by entering into the pain itself we can describe it, see what it sees. There are many different kinds of pain, each one reflecting the nature of its host. The intellectual suffers in a world of contradiction, schism, and disorder. He tries to deal with his pain with definitions, categories, labels. He institutionalizes policy, enforces rules, protocols. Conventions, from his point of view, are far preferable to catch-as-catch-can.
The Tarot speaks of another kind of man, the King of Hearts. How does this kind of individual deal with the problem of pain? His particular brand of suffering arises from a sense of aloneness, the feeling of being unable to share, participate, extend a helping hand, be generous. Without this bond of human sympathy, such a man cannot laugh or weep; he cannot commit himself. He can only gaze into his own desolation with a blank look. The man of hearts knows this and so he is quick to patch up fights, mediate, explain, always making sure that the compact remains vital. At a less developed level, while still caught up in his pain, this man will use the public trust to further his own selfish ends.
And men can suffer in their souls as well. This happens when our dreams lose their effective power. When no correspondence or mutual confirmation obtains between the dream and the world in which we live, we doubt our purpose, our imperatives dwindle to a mere settling for or a desire to survive. The zest and the magic are gone. We live our lives like a prisoner chained to the iron world of fate, cynical of the sense of freedom that dreams give to us, never hoping to escape. And so, soul-men must make dreams if their universe is to hold intact. They give us our myths, stories, dramas, and utopias. They comment on the human condition and ask us to feed the dream with interest, understanding, application. The negative type, on the other hand, will either explode the dream balloon and leave us with the fall or drive us giddy with our mission while collecting admission.
Then there’s the spirit man, the man to whom the abyss, void, disaster, and torture chamber is nothing but the crucible out of which meaning is forged. He speaks to our emptiness and says this is not annihilation but a test of one’s integrity, surrendered and open, waiting for the darkness to clear. He creates meaning — always in process, conclusionless and vivid but it is a meaning created out of the depths of the irrational. To the spirit man, nothing could be more abhorrent or stressful than a world without a center, a sense of genesis, a universe replaced by norms, forms, rituals and ideologies, insipid sentiment, vacuous dreams. He says, with Plato: go back and remember; something in you remembers and knows before all knowing began. Trust that, for only there can you see and feel and hear all at once. He is, like Nietzsche, a great questioner. He will take us to the edge of the abyss and force us to recognize who we are and what our pain is.
There are many kinds of pain but no matter what it is or who is experiencing the pain, what’s important is that we have in the past elaborated it into a wound. The wound heals or is forgotten but the scar itself reminds us that a part of us has gone numb if not dead, perhaps become a zombie that stalks us in our sleep, demanding justice until accepted into the common whole.
Edward Cortez Garrett