My friend, Paul Baker, wrote recently in appreciation of pain. Even though it had been fifty-seven years since his appendectomy, scar tissue from it had completely closed off his small intestine. “If it had not been for the pain,” he says, “I would have died. Thank God for pain.”
Many older people have to endure pain. It’s not just older folks, of course, but pain seems to be a more regular companion as we age. We fall and break bones and tear tendons. Years of wear on joints and nerves bring on arthritis and sciatica.
Most of us have one part or system of the body that is our vulnerable spot–lungs or heart or knees or stomach or skin. That is where our bodies are likely to break down and cause pain first. My shoulders are my vulnerable spot. I am typing this reflection with only one hand because the pain in my left shoulder is intense today. No one has been able to diagnose the reason for this pain yet, although this is the shoulder that had rotator cuff surgery a year and a half ago, so maybe that has something to do with it. I can’t take aspirin because another medicine I once took gave me ulcers, so I take an occasional Tylenol for the shoulder pain. I don’t want to overdo that, though, for fear too much use will eventually make them ineffective.
One way I deal with the pain is to think about something else, like writing this reflection. However, writing about pain, and being constantly reminded by the frustration of typing one-handed is probably not the best way to do this. Trying to combat pain becomes very complicated, doesn’t it?
Frankly, I would be very happy not to have to deal with pain at all. Pain, however, is the body’s way of telling us that we are out of kilter, that, in the old mechanics’ term, we need to be “justified,” made to run right, get all our parts to work together in harmony. If we had no pain, we would let things run wrong until there could be no correction. We would be permanently lop-sided.
This is true emotionally as well as physically. I think one reason my shoulders are my vulnerable spot is that, subconsciously, I have felt that I had to carry the weight of the world my whole life. Take a look at your vulnerable body spot or system and you may well find a similar connection. Intestinal problems? Maybe there is something in your life that is hard to digest, that you “just can’t stomach.” Skin problems? Maybe your relationships, or other things “out there” are wearing on you.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying “it’s all in your head.” It is in your body, too. But that real pain is telling us something.
I have often extolled my old friend, Walt Wagener, as one who is expert at “blooming where he’s planted.” Once when I did so, Helen said, “I want to bloom BEFORE I’m planted.” So I started writing a book of meditations for old people, sort of like my book for cancer patients. I called it BLOOM BEFORE YOU’RE PLANTED. I was never able to get an agent or publisher to be interested in the idea, though, so I’m now using some of the “chapters” for that book in this blog.