Wednesday evening my back spasmed and locked up. This has happened before. Actually, quite a few times. This time it was worse than it had ever been. Later Wednesday night I had a full-blown panic attack. The pain was unbearable, I needed to move, but couldn’t. I was drowning. I was sweating. My heart was racing. I was crying. I freaked out. It was an intense experience. If this was a test, I failed.
I had two big issues during this experience. I wasn’t in control and I didn’t know when things would get better. I “know” intellectually that I am not in control of much. I work to connect this head knowledge to my heart understanding every day. The more I am able to integrate this reality into myself, the more successful I am at having appropriate responses to the things that come into my life. My response is one thing I can control.
Pain is an opportunity to practice our response.
Wednesday night I experienced a crisis and I responded out of fear and panic. I made things worse. My attempts to move and my elevated physical state made the spasm in my back worse, not better. I couldn’t control the pain, but I could have managed my response to it better. After my initial freak out, I began to manage the pain differently. I found the things I could do, and the things I couldn’t, and I relaxed (as much as I could) and breathed through the pain when I did have to move. I also utilized the resources I had available to resolve the source of the pain. For my physical pain, this included medicine, physical therapy, and rest.
If the pain had been emotional instead of physical, my initial response might also have been panic and fear. I might have tried to outrun or hide from the reality. I might have medicated myself to numb the pain without doing anything about the source. I might have turned and put the pain on someone else.
Just like physical pain, I have the same opportunities with emotional pain. I can manage my response in a way that is healthy for me and those around me. I can draw on the resources I have to begin to process and resolve the underlying causes of the disturbance. I can choose to not hurt others even when I am hurting.
Experiencing pain gives us the opportunity to put into practice things that we may believe and desire to be true, but we don’t really know them until we have to use them.
Pain reminds us that the joy we feel is real.
I still have some pain when I move certain ways or sit for too long. However, I feel several magnitudes of order better now than I did. I am so grateful that the pain went away. I have a renewed appreciation for the simple act of getting out of bed, walking unaided to the bathroom, sitting up, and a myriad of other routine things that I was certainly taking for granted prior to Wednesday.
When I experience pain, it makes the times when I am not in pain special. If I didn’t know what it felt like to hurt, physically or emotionally, then I wouldn’t have any reason to be grateful for the times I feel good. I find that my present state becomes normative if it persists too long. In other words, I get used to my present reality and become complacent in the practices of gratefulness and other oriented behaviors. When things change, for better or worse, I have a differential to relate to and I have the opportunity to be grateful, either for what I just gained or for what I lost (and hope to regain.)
In the movie, The Matrix, Agent Smith tells Morpheus:
“Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from.”
I think there is significant truth there. I struggle to accept how wonderful my life is unless from time to time it isn’t. I need pain to remind me that there is joy and wonder almost everywhere I look. I need the disruption of discomfort to prevent me from losing perspective and becoming ungrateful.
I do not enjoy emotional or physical pain, but I do value it. I don’t want to experience loss and hurt and pain, but I fear the loss of perspective more. I accept the reality of pain in my life because I covet the knowledge (intellectual and emotional) that I gain from it.
Today I have renewed gratitude. Pain gives me that gift.