America makes up 5% of the world’s population but accounts for 80% of the pain medication consumed. Our annual pain relief intake is equivalent to every American taking pills every four hours for three solid weeks. I read this yesterday on CNN.com (http://www.cnn.com/2013/02/08/health/us-uk-pain-sgmd/index.html?hpt=hp_bn13) and it got me thinking about pain.
If you’ve ever dropped in on a Catholic mass, you’ve probably spent some time considering the totemic idea of Christ hanging from the cross. Kind of hard to miss, most churches have the crucifix center stage, right above the altar. It’s the single most indelible image of the Catholicism I remember growing up with and it’s one that I’ve had a dynamic relationship with over the years.
There can be few fates worse or more painful than hanging from a cross until death. As a child and then a teenager, my time in church bounced between a loose connection with the service, a variety of sexual reverie and frequent consideration of just how compelling the image of a dying Christ was to me. He suffered for my sins I was told, He loved me that much.
Later, when I was in the throes of alcoholism, I came upon a new way of life, a new program that suggested to me that, “pain was the touchstone to spiritual growth.” Over the years (25 and counting), I’ve learned that there is a direct proportionality realized between the amount of pain I can walk through and the quality of my sober life. This isn’t to suggest that I generally advocate seeking pain out but when I do come in contact with it, be it physical, mental or spiritual, I’ve tried to see it as an opportunity to grow, to do something different, to try a new way.
For some pain, there is no doubt, no more sensible response than medication. Though I may be wrong, I can’t imagine the terminal patient deriving much benefit from “toughing out” their final days. If someone’s mental anguish is so great that they cannot function and medication provides them opportunity to make a start at living positively, by all means, dose them up. But 80% of all the pain meds in the world? We’ve got to be overdoing it.
In an ironic spiritual twist, one of the reasons I left the Catholic Church was that I didn’t want my kids to grow up with such a gruesome image of God. For me, the loving part of God was too hard to see, too easy to miss in Christ’s suffering on the cross. Now, I’m concerned I might have kept my kids from learning one of life’s essential lessons: that great rewards can come from the worst kinds of suffering.
The past few months, I haven’t been able to run hard because of my ruptured plantar fascia. It’s taken away one of my favorite spiritual practices. I like to run so hard that I am humbled into asking God for help. Weird, I know, but when I physically put myself in a state of enormous suffering, my connection to my Higher Power is at its strongest. Truth be told, hard days on the trail or track, are kind of like my time on the cross, they are the acts that bring me closer to Him.
That’s not to say, I don’t feel a spiritual connection when I’m looking at my family around the dinner table. Or when a loving dog comes by and puts her head in my lap. I certainly feel His presence when I enjoy success at work or experience unadulterated kindness or epic beauty. But in terms of acute, “I need something bigger than me to get through this” humility, nothing quite does it like suffering on the run. I seek the pain out and when I feel it, I get to a better place.
A few months ago, when the pain in my foot got so bad, I didn’t have a single waking moment that I was not in pain, I finally went to a doctor. This guy is supposed to be the best “Runner’s Doctor” in Manhattan. He writes for a number of periodicals and is frequently consulted as an expert by my colleagues in the media. After a 2 minute discussion of my injury, he whipped out a needle that looked like something borrowed from Dr Frankenstein, told me to “take it like a man” and shoved it into my heel. To say, “It hurt” is equivalent to saying “Paris is a nice town.” But the pain subsided in my heel in two short days. In five more days, just as the Good Doctor had promised, I was running again.
Loaded up with cortisone, I felt nothing. When it wore off, I was right back where I’d been before the shot. No progress, the pain was the same. A lesson learned, I’ve given up on this “Best Doctor.” Long term, I may seek out another one but for now, I’m going to keep doing what I probably should have been doing all along. Using this pain as a motivator to change, to grow, to try different things.
It reminds me of what they were trying to tell me when I was sitting in church, all those years ago.