Monday, June 16, 2014

Theodicy and Phenomenal Curiosity

I have, right now, a terrific headache.  It is a long, spidery headache whose bulging, raspy abdomen sits over my eyes and whose long forelegs reach across my head and down my spine.  One leg is probing my belly and provoking nausea.  It came on suddenly, dropping from the air, and it has become a constant efflorescence of discomfort.  Each moment it is renewed.  I try to turn my attention away, and it pulses, drawing me back.  Fine, I will give it my attention and stare it down, dominate it.  No, it has no steady gaze to match; every instant it is a new hostility towards being.  It will not hold still, it is my Proteus, but I am no Menelaus.  I cannot grapple it into submission.

I should stop writing, stop looking at the screen, but I want, as Bugbee says in the first page of The Inward Morning, to "get it down," to attend to this moment as its own revelation.  I want, in a way, to put this idea to the test.  I can write and think when I am feeling well, but it is hard to write in times like this.

Life is interesting.  This, too, is an interesting moment, and this pain is interesting.

The urge to turn this into a rule for others is to be resisted.  My pain is interesting to me because I have chosen to make it so.  I have chosen to be curious while I am able.  And this is not the worst headache I've had, it's just strong and annoying.

But -- and this is the important thing, I think -- I must not insist that others do the same.  I must not say that "pain is God's megaphone to rouse a deaf world," I must not say that "all things work together for good," that pain is all part of a bigger plan.

I admit that all of that may be true.  It may be that the suffering of others will be the darkness that makes the brightness of the divine and eternal chiaroscuro shine brighter.

But to insist that pain is good is the privilege of those who are in no pain and the blasphemy of those who have forgotten fellow-feeling.  It is lacking in sympathy, and in kindness.  It is, in short, lacking in love.

In one of his letters to the church in Corinth, St. Paul wrote something like this: no matter what I say, no matter how beautifully I say it, if I speak without love, I might as well not be speaking at all.  (I am paraphrasing, so if you're someone who's bothered by people paraphrasing the Bible and want to see his words, here you go.)

I cannot write any more right now.


It is now several days later, and the pain is gone.  Which means that now, when I think of the pain, I do so through the watery filter of time, which bends and distorts the image like water bending the image of the dipped oar.  I no longer behold it as I did when I was in medias res, in the midst of things.  I'm glad it doesn't hurt, but I've got to remember not to make it seem easier than it was.

Years ago a surgeon cut me open "from stem to stern" (his cheerful words, not mine) and then stapled me back together.  I awoke barely able to breathe.  The painkillers they gave me didn't remove the pain, they only relocated it to a part of my brain that cared less, made it less the center of my attention. Even there, it constantly tried to crawl back into the center, to take over my consciousness.  I'm grateful that it did not last long.  My awareness of that gratitude gives me great sympathy for those who cannot make their pain end, who have no hope that soon the healing will make the pain a dull memory rather than a sharp presence goading their consciousness.

At the time, I found it a helpful strategy to attend to the pain as a curiosity, to tell myself "this is interesting," and to ask "what can I learn from this pain right now?"  I couldn't sustain this for long, but I could do it again and again, with ever-renewed curiosity, and I found enormous solace and spiritual interest in it.  It put me above my pain, and stripped my pain of its domineering attitude.  It no longer loomed over me while I gazed down at it with wondering eyes.

But again, this is extremely difficult to sustain, and it probably takes a certain weird, philosophical warp of mind to begin with, a phenomenal curiosity cultivated and strengthened by long habit well before the pain began.  It's hard to come up with something like this in the moment agony strikes.


The upshot of all this, for me, is twofold: first, it is good to have discovered, in the midst of my own pain, that I may always regard my own life as interesting, no matter what happens.  Second, I must always remember that this is a curious discovery I have made about myself, not a universal fact for all people.

Of course, I am writing my discovery down here because I hope that it will prove true for others.  And I think its greatest application is not for the destruction of sharp physical pain but for addressing the flat white pain of boredom.  When boredom drops down from above and wraps us in its gauzy, nauseating silk, this, too, can become the object of our curiosity.  The very fact of our boredom may be examined, and examined profitably.

But in all our examinations, we must not be - we must never be - unkind by despising the pain of others, dismissing it and insisting that if we can dismiss it, they can too.

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