I was kept awake at different times last week due to a pulsing pain in my mouth. I’m no doctor but I could feel it deep in the tooth and imagined infection. The pain triggered sensations all along my bottom gums, circling up into the roof of my mouth. Constant enough to be a concern, numbed by ibuprofen, foreign enough to spark fear. And questions. The What Ifs. It doesn’t leave? It gets worse? And others like it.
Like a comet hurtles to earth with its doomsday answer to all of life’s existential questions, maybe you don’t race through questions about your health and vitality when you experience sharp pain. Do you? Is that just the writer’s hypochondriacal inclination? Read how Anne Lamott describes sitting down to face a blank page:
You may find yourself consumed with a free-floating shame, and a hopelessness about your work, and the realization that you will have to throw out everything you’ve done so far and start from scratch. But you will not be able to. Because you suddenly understand that you are completely riddled with cancer. (Bird by Bird, p. 8-9. Anchor Books, 1995).
Pain in our bodies (and in our craft) comes with a nagging sense of doubt which breeds fear, a condition sometimes worse than a symptom or the disease.
I described the experience over the phone to my mom, how it seemed so ever-present because the pain was located in my head. Described how there seemed no way to think around it.
“Our mouths are close to our brains,” she said. Neither of us really knew what that was supposed to mean.
“Some closer than others,” I replied. We both laughed.
Physical pain is a trial, no matter where or how we feel it. When I experience it I’m always reminded how much I don’t like it. To be thankful I’m not in a constant state of it.
Part of my coping mechanism with pain is to place it in the context of other pains experienced, either by my own self or by others. “It could be worse.” I think of friends or family members in the hospital, suffering in a way much worse than I, as a way to get perspective, to be thankful.
It’s a way to put the pain in its place, but it doesn’t make it go away. The fact is, pain is no good. Please just take it away.
In my exercise of self-positioning, placing my oral suffering in the vast index of human pain, my mind, naturally went to the suffering experienced by Richard Wurmbrand. I say “naturally”, because I’m starting to promote the Premiere of my new play which examines, among other things, the extent to which people suffer for their beliefs. Incidentally, I wrote one of the characters to suggest and remember Richard Wurmbrand’s valiant life.
Richard Wurmbrand describes some of the torture he experienced at the hand of the Romanian Communists when he was imprisoned for his work in the Christian Underground, after waiting in a cold cell for a month with almost no sleep or food, intimidated by the threat of torture with medieval tactics and brutality. Finally the terrible day arrived:
After a few strokes with [a nylon whip], I lost consciousness. Once a knife was held to my throat while [the torturer] urged me to talk, if I wished to stay alive. Two men held me down. I felt them tighten their grip and the blade pierced the skin. Again I fainted, and woke to find my chest covered with blood. Water was poured down a funnel into my throat, until my stomach was bursting; then the guards kicked and stepped on me. (In God’s Underground. Voice of the Martyrs, 2004. pg. 48)
This was after being in prison for seven months. He would remain in prison for eight more years, before being released (and later re-arrested).
Wurmbrand’s book Alone with God, which is a compilation of sermons he constructed and memorized during an unimaginable three-year stint in solitary confinement, were one way for him to remain sane. They were, as he later described, “my deepest, perhaps my ultimate dying thoughts.” It might well have been songs he constructed or poems, but he was a preacher and so he constructed sermons “only because it is in my character to do so, as it is in the nature of nightingales to sing.” (Alone with God, Hodder and Stoughton).
I hold up the pain I have known and have experienced against the pain others like Wurmbrand have suffered. When I do, I feel something akin to shame. I felt enough pain through a few nights of toothache, thank you very much. How could he, how can others endure so much?
When I hold up the pain I have known to the pain of others, perhaps I also experience a form of wonder. That sort of thankful relief you feel for yourself mixed with regretful compassion you feel for the person pulled over by the traffic cop who just happened to zip past you on the highway. He got the penalty and you didn’t; both of you were speeding. The point is: It could’ve been me.
I don’t like pain. And I didn’t need a root canal to remind me of that. But the experience was instructive. The toothache, among the myriad things it brought to body and mind, triggered empathy–an identification with others.
People, throughout history, have suffered great pains for their beliefs. Wurmbrand is one such figure in particular. There are a thousand more examples to draw from, hundreds living out this terrible reality right now, every day. For me it was important to, in a small way, identify with that.
And just as the startling discomfort of the tooth ache awakened in me more than sympathy pains, these stories, real and imagined, remind me to pray and to help those who suffer greatly.