Befriending our Aches and Pains.
We can complain because the rose bush has thorns, or we can rejoice because the thorn bush has roses.
– Abraham Lincoln
by the Rev. Patricia Riggins
We know that our bodies are not meant to last forever; we are, however, less certain about when and to what degree our bodies will begin to show wear and tear. So many factors influence this: our DNA, environmental conditions, access to health care, dietary and lifestyle choices. Yet, at some point we all begin to experience muscle aches, less stamina, strained or arthritic joints, or are diagnosed with a chronic illness.
Physical activities we did easily 20 years ago (or maybe 5) now require more effort. We realize that there are limits to how we move and how far and when we can drive; we may need help maintaining our homes and our yards. We need someone to do the heavy lifting that once was easy.
When we experience our limitations or receive an unwelcome diagnosis our angry cries become “Why me?” and “This isn’t fair!” When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I was in shock and filled with despair and dread. I wanted the Jesus who healed the 10 lepers to show up at my front door. If touching Jesus’ robe had cured the woman who bled for 12 years, clearly having Jesus just cast a healing glance my way would get rid of my cancer and let me continue my appointed path. After all, I had things to accomplish.
However, the Jesus who showed up wasn’t the miracle worker. It was the Jesus of the parables and paradoxes. Guidance and hope came from the radiologist whose initial words – “it is cancer” – filled me with fear and death. The long needles and cold steel tables that were critical for diagnosis and treatment were softened by the gentle and warm hands of the technicians and nurses who held and positioned me.
We have a choice: to accept the changes that our bodies are experiencing or let the discomfort control how we live and view life. Each of us must find our own path through these diminishments and not let them limit the enjoyment in our lives. Some of us will use humor, others will find people who share similar limitations, and still others will develop a conscious spiritual practice, such as meditation, journaling, art etc. When we hallow or make holy our diminishments, honoring them and treating them gently, we live in our aging bodies with grace, rather than anger, morbidity, or denial.1
It is crucial that we find our own path because if we don’t befriend our physical pain, the pain that originates in our bodies can easily slip into suffering – a response by our brain to the pain. In their book Aging with Wisdom and grace, Wilke and Noreen Au remind us that suffering comes when we respond negatively to physical pain. Suffering can make us miserable and occurs when we complain and resist our reality because it does not conform to our desires. This does not mean that we can’t shake our fist and shout, “Why me?” We just can’t stay in that place.
In his essay Hallowing our Diminishments,3 the Quaker writer John Yungblut encourages us to adapt a friendly attitude toward our limitations. When we befriend our aches and pains, they don’t torment us as much; we can have a sense of humor about them. We also discover that others with similar limitations can be a source of comfort and encouragement.
And there are gifts that come with our diminishments. We find new activities that feed our heart and soul. We are given permission by our physicians to admit that we hurt, to rest, to nurture our bodies and minds. Slowing down and honoring our limitations helps us nurture relationships that had fallen away. Befriending aches and pains encourages our heart to develop a new appreciation for others who are in pain and for those who do not have access to good health care. Befriending limitations helps us to be grateful for those parts of the body that are healthy even if they don’t function like they did when we were 40.
We can choose to be a prisoner of our aches and pains, or we can choose to befriend them and see how they can deepen our lives. As elders in this world, our call is to be one with the world and to show compassion to those who suffer, including ourselves.
1 Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au, Aging with Wisdom and Grace (New York: Paulist Press, 2019) p.35.
3 John Yungblut, “Hallowing our Diminishments” (Pennsylvania: Pendle Hill Publications 292, 1990) p 73.
Questions for reflection
1. What limitations, illnesses, aches and pains are you living with? (They might not all be physical.)
2. Can you hallow or befriend these limitations? if so, how? Or are you more inclined to ignore them? If so, why?
3. What have your limitations taught you about this time in your life?
A Recommended Practice
Days of Grace, Meditations and Practices for Living with Illness written by the Rev. Mary Earle provides a 30-day journey of meditations based on the Psalms. It is a wonderful place to begin to learn to befriend your aches and pains. Find the meditations at the Explore Faith website where you can also listen to Mary read each daily meditation.
ARTICLES AND ESSAYS
Our Wounds, Our Gifts, and Our Power to Heal Others by Fr. Ron Rolheiser
It was Henri Nouwen who introduced us to the term “wounded healer.” He could speak to it because he was one. So are many of us. Ron Rolheiser reminds us our wounds are meant to form us and help us to share them with others for their good and ours. Read the essay.
An Accumulation of Losses by Fr. Richard Rohr
Grief is part of the dance of our lives, says Richard Rohr. When we do not acknowledge it and accept it, we become unable to move forward. Our own grief builds compassion in us for others who are grieving. Read the essay.
On Hallowing our Diminishments by Fr. Ron Rolheiser
As we grow older, we all suffer diminishments. Being ashamed or angry only allows them to color our lives for the worse. To hallow them (make them holy) we must bring them into the light and give them dignity. Read the essay.
Transforming Pain by Fr. Richard Rohr
Our pain has something to teach us, and if we refuse to acknowledge it we will miss important lessons for our journey. What’s more, we will transmit it to others, especially our families. When we feel our private pain, it hallows “every act of bloodshed and every tear wept since the beginning of time.” Read the essay.