Trust: when to hang on, and when to let go


“Let yourself go.” In the boys’ school where I worked, I was often part of the team that took groups of boys out into the bush on camps. One of the favourite activities was abseiling. We would find a suitable cliff in the bush, perhaps 10 metres high. The instructor would go to the top of the cliff with the boys. The other staff member and I stayed at the bottom ready to belay the abseilers as they came over the top.

Letting go
Letting go

This was a moment of great terror for the new boys. We would hear the instructor telling the lad how to put on his safety ropes and clamps. We would hear him coaxing the boy to walk backwards, “Just keep walking backwards. You can keep walking backwards over the cliff. Don’t worry, the ropes will hold you!” Then just as we could see the person beginning to overhang, we would hear the instructor, “Now just let yourself go!”

There is a moment of free-fall just as you overbalance the cliff and before the ropes slide to hold you. The boys used to describe that moment as sweet terror. I would shoot a video of each one as they came down the cliff to the base. We would show the film that evening. “That’s me!” each would shoot, “That’s when I went over.”

The abseiling became a rite of passage for several years. Each lad would remember a moment of terror followed by an experience of trustworthy ropes and belayers.

Dealing with chronic pain takes courage, too. And a lot of it is about trust, the kind of trust that “lets go”.

There is another kind of trust, which is trusting by hanging on. We think if we grit our teeth and hold on, we will prevail. But that kind of trust, the hanging on tight kind of trust, will ultimately fail. It’s trusting in oneself, in a person’s own ability to hang on. Arrive at a point where we can no longer hang on, and that trust is gone.

I tried to hang on when my chronic pain worsened in 2002. “God wants me in this demanding job,” I told myself, “so if I hang on to God, God will bring me through.” The problem was that I was trusting, not God, but my own ability to hang in there. In the end, my own ability was not enough.

When I remembered that moment of sweet terror in abseiling, I knew what I had to do. I resigned from my job at the end of 2003. That was a messy process. I tried to work from home as a consultant, and began to let go. When I found myself in hospital in 2004, not just once, but three times, I knew things were entirely out of my control. All I could do, and can do now, is sink into the trust. It is a matter of stepping backwards over the edge, into the unknown and the uncertainty, and waiting for the ropes and the clamps to gently take my weight.

Belaying
Belaying

There were boys who were not too good at abseiling. They would get started, and then be filled with fear. They grabbed hold of the main rope and tried to haul themselves up. Watching below, you could see they were safe – their rope supports were still in place – but their descent was awkward. They would swing into the face of the cliff, sometimes bruising an elbow. They would spin out of control, and only stop by tangling a foot in the rope. Sometimes they were jerked into a hanging position: given the position of the main clamp between their legs this was an uncomfortable manoeuvre. They still got down, but it was the hard way. The most elegant parts of their descent were still when they let go and let the system of ropes, clamps and pulleys gently bring them down.

I have to say that that still happens to me. I know the principle, but I still come down the hard way, the clumsy way. I begin to worry about finances, or about Centrelink, or about being able to travel far enough for family gatherings, and the moment I worry, my life jerks out of control again. I try to solve things by my own strength, sell some writing, perhaps, to help the income stream, or take a journey and suffer for it after.

‘Letting yourself go’ is not an easy thing to do. But having got to the top of the cliff and stepped over, I now know that it is possible. I need to find people who’ve abseiled themselves and ask for their encouragement. The more I let go, the more graceful my progress will be.

Immobile – or stable?


It’s been an unpleasant surprise to me to find my movements so restricted by my pain. I was upset recently not to be able to travel 3 hours to the city for the interment of my goddaughter’s ashes. I even find it difficult to travel to Dunsborough 30 minutes away. Being ‘stuck at home’ means I have an excuse not to go to meetings. That’s generally good. The down side is that I can feel left out of the various organisations I belong to.

But the unpleasant surprise has been reduced by a gradual pleasant surprise. People are coming to see me about their Christian lives and ministries because I am at home and therefore have a largely empty calendar. They find it possible to fit me in their busy lives because I am here. I am here all the time.

This surprising availability to others has been a joy for me. Not only do my visitors bring me collegial company, but they also allow me to exercise my gifts of pastoral supervision and listening.

I have decided to name this surprise after one of the vows of the Benedictine monastic tradition. In addition to the three ‘Gospel’ vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, a Benedictine monk also makes a promise of ‘stability’ – to remain with this community for the rest of his life.

courtesy Benedictine community, Camperdown, Vic.
Benedictine stability: courtesy Benedictine community, Camperdown, Vic.

Stability is a protest against the busy running around most of us do in our work and in our family life. Monastic stability reminds the rest of us that being still, being less mobile, is a good thing. For monks, stability means that they can be found by God. But being a still point attracts others.

Unlike that of Benedictine monks, my immobility is not chosen. However, I can welcome it as stability, as a way that will bring me into different contact with people, as a way that links me more firmly to this little corner of my suburb, and as an opportunity where I might be found by God and so deepen my spirituality.

Reframing enforced immobility as chosen stability is a good thing to do with my brain.

Use your brain


Pain clinics usually have psychologists. That’s not because chronic pain is a mental illness, but because the mind has resources that can help us change the way we look at our pain. Pain psychologists are more like sports psychologists than ordinary psychologists. They are basically interested in getting us to perform better.

There are parallels between elite athletes and people with chronic pain. The most obvious is the necessity for exercise. To manage chronic pain we must be in training always. The type of exercise may vary depending on your level of disability, but I must have significant exercise every day to give the cardio-vascular system a work out.

At the moment, that means I start my walk with the ritual of calling the dog, getting her to sit and attaching her lead. Then we walk for 10-15 minutes. My next goal is to take a slightly different route that will add 5 minutes to my walk and conclude with a significant climb.

Deep water-running
Deep water-running

When summer comes, I take to the swimming pool and do ‘water-running’ and gradually build up my times and my effort. I’m currently on 4 x 50 metre laps, at just over 4 minutes a lap. My pulse and breathing rates get to near my safe limit, so I will continue doing 4 laps until my vital rates are lower. Then I will add a half-lap, and then another.

To do this properly requires a bit of obsession. I have to be disciplined like an athlete preparing for a big meet. To keep on track, I have to use my brain, and not only for exercise. Like an athlete, I use my brain to reframe and refine my attitudes. For example, the attitude that the world owes me is not a helpful attitude for an athlete or a person with long-term pain. My attitude needs to be not that I am owed anything, but that I have something to give, and I have the capacity to achieve.

Along the Bibbulman Track
Along the Bibbulman Track

Near the town where I live is a walking trail called The Bibbulmun Track. Named after the local aboriginal clan, the trail winds its way through most of the traditional Bibbulman lands. Walkers take up to 6 weeks to trek the length of the trail through jarrah and karri forests and coastland heath. From September to November, the wildflowers fill the bush with colour. The cool mornings of winter bring a crisp mist to the karri forests. I think it is the most beautiful country on earth.

For some time, I have not been able to walk on the Bibbulman track. It’s not that I want to walk from one end to the other. I would just like to be able to drive to a place where the trail intersects the highway and walk for three hours or so.

I am not physically able to manage that walk at present, but I use my brain to motivate my body to heal. I hold it up to myself as a goal. I set myself this goal as a participant in the Pain Understanding and Management Program at our local hospital. Now many months later, I am not much closer to my goal. But having the goal has kept me walking every day. Having the goal has increased my appreciation of our own native garden.

Our front garden
Our front garden

My brain can heal my body, and I like getting the most out of it.

The past is another country


Happy memories
Happy memories

The past, I find, can be extremely seductive. Someone somewhere in my extended family has a photo of my brother and I aged about 10 and 7 respectively sitting on a large Clydesdale horse. The photo reminds me, of course, of the hours Barry and I spent playing on that huge horse. The horse was too high to climb on, so we would lead him over to a strainer-post, and climb onto the large post. From there, we would try to mount the steed. Success came only after two or three attempts, because by the time we climbed up, the horse had plodded off, and would have to be rounded up again.

Being the elder, Barry would always ride up front and “steer’ the horse. This involved patting it on the side of the head, talking to it, and occasionally pulling the appropriate ear. The horse took it all patiently, just kept plodding on. I begged and begged to be allowed to sit up front. Eventually Barry had an idea. “I will steer the horse under the branch,” he said, “and I will grab the branch. Like he always does, the horse will keep plodding on and take you under me and I will drop on behind.”

My brother reached up and hung from the branch. I squashed down as the horse plodded on. But I couldn’t squash down small enough. In fact, the tree lifted Barry off the horse only a couple of inches. Barry was committed; the horse likewise was committed to keep walking. I tumbled off the back of the horse – quite a fall when you’re 7 years old and the horse is at least 17 hands tall! I looked up and Barry was still hanging from the tree. The horse was still ambling away. In the end, Barry too had to drop down, so we were both on the ground, and I had missed my chance to sit in the front! Despite my disappointment, it was so funny – especially as Barry got his come-uppance by being stranded 20 feet up in the air.

I’m glad we have that photo. It keeps the memory alive. I was lucky. I had a happy childhood – even as brother number four – and it’s pleasant to reminisce. But it’s also a distraction. Once I think of that photo, I start thinking of many associated happy times with Barry, with the horse, with the family. I’m in another world apart from the present.

At first glance, the past looks like a good place to escape when you are in great pain. And it can be. But the past is also a dangerous place. It can become, on one hand, an addictive escape that prevents us ever facing up to the real challenges of the present moment, until they escalate totally out of control.

On the other hand, the past has pleasant memories, but it is full of unexpected pot-holes. Just as we recall a pleasant event from our childhood, the memory sparks off another memory of being bullied, or being embarrassed, or of committing some act that even now catches us with an intensity of guilt.

While there are past experiences that do need attending to in order for healing to take place in the present, most of the incidents in our past are past, and should stay there. Bringing them back into the present just adds one more level of pain to those we already put up with. We can do without that.

Living in the present doesn’t mean forgetting the past; it means being mindful of the journeys we take there. Living in the present means we keep good hold of the coordinates of this present moment, so that when we visit the past we do it with awareness – both that nostalgia can be pleasant, but also that it is past, and has no direct connection with this present minute, this present day.

The same goes for the future. I can imagine wonderful things happening to me sometime soon. I can look forward to my daughter’s wedding. I can imagine the satisfaction I will have teaching a course next month. I can dream about being a famous author. But I must do so with awareness, mindful that the future, like the past, is full of dangers. We can worry about finances, especially when we are off work. We can project our disappointment if we cannot meet the travel plans we have made because of pain.

When we visit the land of future, the danger is that we will stir up unnecessary anxiety, just as when we visit the past, we trip over unnecessary feelings of guilt and shame.

Of course we must plan. But we plan with awareness that we are in the present. The future will never arrive. The present moment is the only moment which we can experience.

Jesus of Nazareth expressed it with realism, “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

Indeed. The present may be full of trouble and pain, and we need to live it. But we do not need to make the present moment harder than it is by letting our imaginary journeys into past or future add to the sum of pain we experience now.

No Sex, Please: We Might be Sore


SEX AND PAIN
Definition of sexuality:
“Being so attentive to another that you tend to merge with that other.”
Those words, with capital ‘O’s, could equally be a definition of spirituality.
“Being so attentive to an Other that you tend to merge with that Other.”
For some mystics, sexuality and spirituality are aspects of the same reality: the purpose of human life is to “get out of oneself” and merge with the larger Reality. Saint John of the Cross, for example, lusciously described his prayer life as sexual pursuit and mutual seduction.

The Bible regards human beings as in-breathed bodies, that is, spiritual bodies: not spirits AND bodies, nor flesh AND soul, but just one united package. In classical Christian thought, no division can be made between body, mind and spirit. To emphasise one aspect (say, the spiritual) over another aspect (say, the physical) depreciates the essential wholeness of the human person. So for Christians, having sex is never purely physical, because the human beings engaged in sex are spiritual, emotional, thinking (etc!) bodies. Having sex should be making love. If it is not, the act is expressing hate, or showing indifference. The physical act is inextricably linked to the greater human reality.

For those in pain, sex may be painful. Doctors today even recognise this. In the 20 years following my major operation, sexuality didn’t appear to exist for pain sufferers. Doctors paid attention to the effects pain and pills had on every other function of your body/mind, but avoided mentioning the major impacts pain has on your sex life.

Nowadays, there are questions on pain questionnaires which ask you to rate the obstacle your pain causes for your enjoyment of sex, but I have not yet met a doctor willing to actually discuss the questionnaire results, which in my case document the additional pain of having sex and the decrease of enjoyment of sex. A doctor prepared to discuss sex and pain with me would be a bonus.

For those in pain, it can feel as though the physical pain is taking away the emotional and spiritual joy of making love. But that is not all. Not only is the pain a turn-off, but also body image,
disappointment and lack of control contribute to a diminished sex life.
The pain itself lessens the enjoyment of sex. The person in pain then sees their body as being less than it should be, and their body image becomes yet another barrier to full enjoyment of the other.

Faulty body image means not that something is wrong with the body, but with a person’s picture of their body. A faulty body image arises in chronic pain from not looking at the whole body. A person with chronic pain who looks carefully at their body, however, will find more that is right than is wrong. Looking attentively at what is really there is not only a spiritual act, but also a healing one.

Disappointed with their body’s betrayal, they withdraw from sexual activity, fearing more disappointment. Pills, the pain and one’s partner’s reaction to the medicalising of our lives all reduce one’s sexual response. Sometimes I’m aroused, but at other times, not. This loss of control adds to the spiralling decrease in sexual interest.
It’s easy to give up, or to give in to anger and resentment. But there are genuinely positive ways of responding.

1. Talk about these things to your partner.
Researchers have noted how difficult it is for even loving couples to talk about sex. It may be that your pain and the challenges it brings is a gift to your sex life. It can oblige you how to talk together about sex. The aim is to make love. The agenda of your conversation is how do we make love given the physical and emotional obstacles pain causes?
hold-hands-cropped1
2. Fall in love all over again by realising how precious touch is; all touch, and not just sexual touch.
So hold hands. Gently brush your partner’s skin as you pass. Kiss when you wake up and kiss when you get ready for sleep. A sexual relationship is not restricted to 20 minutes in bed. Its joy is its anticipation of the constant presence of your lover.
Touch, too, is the precursor to massage. I am one of those who dislike massage. But a gentle touch relaxes my muscles and can reduce pain.
On the principle that ‘it is more blessed to give than to receive’, share the touching and be attentive more to your partner than to your pain.

3. Keep your bedroom a bower for intimacy (and sleeping!), and stop it looking like a hospital.
Take pills off the bedside table; put medical equipment in the cupboard; take pain diaries and exercise charts down from the walls and put them out of sight, preferably out of the bedroom. Cover hospital pillows with a quilt or colourful slips.

4. Be tolerant of your mind’s nocturnal fantasies.
Sexual dreams involving others are not necessarily temptations to infidelity. They may just be your mind working out ways of maximising your physical and emotional enjoyment of life under restricted circumstances. Learn to welcome your unconscious mind’s attempts to link physical sexuality with emotional and spiritual love. Your mind knows how important it is for you to love your body and with your body.

In all things, be attentive and open to the love of the Other. As other human beings do, make love as best you can within the limitations of what you are given.

In times of temporary or ongoing celibacy with chronic pain, the two-way definition of loving the other/Other still applies: “Be so attentive to an Other that you tend to merge with that Other.” In the 13th century Franciscan theologian Dun Scotus taught that every creature is a little Word of God: an instance of Incarnation. Every person or being to which one gives one’s loving and respectful attention draws us closer into union with God.

For those of us in continuing pain, this knowledge is a beacon of hope. We do have the ability to look beyond our preoccupation with ourselves and our pain, and look into the face of God. That’s sexy. That’s the ultimate in spirituality.