I saw one of these at the beach this morning. I think this type of stork is called a “jabiru”. She was almost stationary with one spidery leg held in the air ready to be replaced on the ground. She stood among sparse beach shrubs about her height in such a way that you had to search to see her even though she was in plain view. Her right eye was fixed on us humans.
The jabiru’s dignity made her appear larger than her perhaps 50 cms in height. With her left leg poised, she had all the time in the world to be herself, the monarch of her world.
Our Bible begins with an extraordinary poem of praise for the Universe which God creates for us. ‘In the beginning, God created…’ For the wonders of each day, Genesis claims, ‘And it was good.’ The lines of this poem sparkle with praise for light and dark, day and night, sun and moon and stars, earth and sea, plants and animals and for humanity.
The resources God provides are there for our use, but within God’s generosity there are limits: things should be used for the purposes God intends. There are some animals and plants which should not be used by human beings: the wild things are there to signal God’s life-giving fecundity. They, like everything else in creation, lead us to praise.
We notice Genesis 1 these days because we notice the world around us for the wrong reasons. Since the beginning of the industrial era, human beings have over-used the provisions God has made for us: water, oil, arable land, have all been gobbled up in a race driven by our greed. We now face a crisis as we number seven billion souls. Can we continue to feed ourselves? Will our industries collapse as the oil begins to run out? These are sobering questions.
On this Saturday night, March 31, we are invited to turn our lights and electrical appliances off for the hour 8:30 – 9:30 p.m. to mark Earth Hour. Cities, towns and households around the world have signed up for Earth Hour. It may be that the electricity we save by switching off is token; the purpose of Earth Hour is to invite us to reflect on our use of the world’s resources.
As Christians, we can turn off lights and television and go outside to revel in the wonder of the Universe in the night sky, to praise God for the generous provision God has made, and to confess our greed in using them.
Our confession will be a true confession as we then reflect on how we can amend our usage of power, oil, water and food and live with a smaller footprint on this wonderful planet.
Every minute of every day, I experience pain. People say how hard it must be, and I don’t disagree. It just is. I have experienced pain since my late teens. I recently turned 63, and the pain has really been both continuous and severe for the past 20 years.
There are days when I complain about it. Not so much the pain as the extra limits it places on my life: less mobility, so a walk on the beach turns step by step into agony. Less ability to sit, so an evening at a restaurant becomes 20 minutes before the pain just makes me, well, go home. At least in recent years, I’ve learned that I have to either pre-order, or choose a restaurant that serves me quickly.
Doctors now recognize chronic pain as a disease of the nervous system or of the brain. That’s not to say that the pain is all in the mind. Rather it points to the mis-firing of the brain’s systems for experiencing pain. In chronic pain, the nerves that bring messages of pain to the brain and the systems that interpret sensations and the brain’s own map of the body are all out of whack, like an orchestra playing out of tune and out of time.
In my case, it’s as though the brain is replaying pain from previous injury to my spine. Ghost pain messages play havoc in my brain. For other people, the ongoing pain may not relate to tissue damage at all, but it arises, a mystery with no obvious cause.
On a scale of zero to 10, where zero is no pain and 10 the worst pain imaginable, my pain sits uncomfortably around 7 most of the time. Others with chronic pain have more fluctuation.
Pain is one thing. The experience of suffering is another. Both pain and suffering are mysterious experiences. But the extent to which a person suffers from their pain is partly a choice.
As a young man, I climbed Mount Toolbrunup. In W.A.’s Stirling Ranges, Toolbrunup’s the toughest climb, because loose scree covers its steep sides. You scrabble up two or three steps, often on hands and knees, and then slide back one or two. It’s exhausting. Even though you seem to make no progress, the skinned knees and knuckles don’t make you suffer. You are climbing. An interesting activity engages you, and if you lift your head high enough, you see better and better views.
Climbing Mount Toolbrunup is a bit like living with chronic pain. You scrabble along. Your way is exhausting and the pain is real. But you are engaged in something other than the effort to move along: the fascinating activity of life. If you lift your attention away from the pain, you see how absolutely captivating life is. You see people to love, usually those who love you. You see an extraordinary world full of natural and man-made marvels; planets and meerkats and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. You choose interesting activities, reading, watching movies and setting crossword puzzles are some I choose. Life is there to be lived.
Or you can choose to suffer. Chronic pain is different from many illnesses. If you break a leg, it gets better. If you have diabetes, you can take insulin. There are pain pills, but they don’t always work. Meditation and exercise form the best base treatment for chronic pain, but note: you have to work at them. You have to choose.
The pain is unrelenting. I have many strategies to keep me sane, even cheerful. I don’t underestimate the climb. Researchers have found, for example, that chronic pain is experienced in the same region of the brain as depression. For many people ongoing pain and deep depression go hand in hand. It’s easy to slip into the chasm of depression, and I have once or twice.
But in the end, I choose. I choose to minimise the pain and limitations, and as well as I can, I choose not to suffer. The view’s great.
VIGNETTE I OF PEACE
The sun warms the western end of the shearing shed, and my back, leaning on the iron corrugations, soaks up the warmth.
Inside, rouseabouts shout, “Ho! Ho! Move up there!” and the shed rumbles with the penned sheep shuffling each other.
The diesel engine throbs on and on, and I hear it whine as a shearer engages the hand-piece on a long blow across the sheep’s back. The shouts of shearers and wool-classers are indecipherable sharp noises above the never-ending rumble. The shearing shed shuffles about on its footings; a machine at work.
But the warm wall, a smoke and a strong cup of tea in my hands, keep it at a distance. Moisture rises from the lush marshmallow plants. Yellow dandelions and green clover carpet the paddock in front of me. A bee buzzes lazily somewhere nearby and I drift drowsily in the afternoon’s warmth.
“Hope is engaged in the weaving of experience now in the process, or in other words, an adventure going forward.”
Yesterday I discussed with my doctor changing the frequency of one of my medications. This involved charting my reactions to the drug, a discussion with the doctor, who telephoned the specialist after appointment. Later in the day, the doctor rang me back with the conclusions of his discussion with the specialist. I had to explain all this to my wife when she came home from work. Today, I must collect a new prescription from the doctor’s surgery and take it to the pharmacist and discuss it with him.
Chronic illness is like that. It is so easy for the illness to become that the main preoccupation of my thinking, and relations with others.
The French philosopher Gabriel Marcel writes, “Thus there is a risk that illness will make of me that deformed creature, a catalogued and professionalised invalid, who thinks of himself as such and contracts in all respects, the habitus of illness. … In so far as I hope, I detach myself from this inner determinism.”
Living well with chronic illness requires making a fundamental choice about who I am. I can choose to be a person with chronic pain, a sick person, a “catalogued and professionalised invalid.” Alternatively, I can choose to be a full human being, not defined by my illness, or any other single characteristic, but seeking a balanced and rich life.
This choice must be made every day. I learn how to live well with my illness from my experience as a Christian disciple. The framework of my life includes the habit of Morning Prayer. Every morning I need to be reminded that “new every morning is the love” whose energy permeates my life. Every morning, I need to be reminded to choose God, to choose life rather than death, to choose to walk a creative path rather than to crawl in sin.
Every morning, I make the choice anew to live in the moment. How destructive it is to dwell in the past, or to worry in the future. “Hope is engaged in the weaving of experience now in the process, or in other words, an adventure going forward.” (Marcel again.)
This way of life is both practical and profoundly spiritual because it is both a more enjoyable and more integrated way for the mind/body/spirit to live.
The second century theologian Irenaeus saw the vision of the glory of God as people really alive (Gloria Dei vivens homo). Living with chronic pain need not reflect a disappointment with the Creator, making a mess of his creation. Living with chronic pain, when the creative path of living fully in the present moment is chosen, can truly glorify God.
THe meditative state allows us to stop being aware of past pain, and to stop worrying about future pain; we have just cope with whatever there is in the 1-3 second gap that we experience as the ‘present moment’.
Progressive relaxation is a simple technique of relaxing muscle groups progressively through the body. It almost always reduces pain. More importantly, it can prepare the body and mind for meditative state, in which we focus on the present moment of awareness. This allows us to stop being aware of past pain, and to stop worrying about future pain; we have just cope with whatever there is in the 1-3 second gap that we experience as the ‘present moment’.
The audio should help. I find it best to listen in a comfortable chair with earphones of some sort, an mp3 player is ideal. Otherwise, use your computer speakers and be seated comfortably before you press ‘play’.
THe file is an mp3 file, and Windows Media (which should be built into your computer) will play it if you have no other means. If you listen on the computer, turn away from the screen so that the visual imagery doesn’t distract … especially on Windows Media!