I got shingles at the end of January, 2006. It was misdiagnosed and it turned into post herpetic neuralgia. My life stopped dead at that point, and I asked myself some questions. What is this illness trying to tell me? What’s wrong with the way I’ve been living? Why didn’t my immune system take care of this? I knew that I couldn’t let the pain take over, and that attitude was important in controlling it.
The American philosopher, William James, wrote, “The greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes.”
Over a number of months I discovered five words that would help me find meaning in this new situation. The first word is “Intentionality”. It means making a commitment to a goal. My long range commitment is to turn roadblock into challenge, and fate into journey. Intentionality also means discipline and perseverance. Living is a bit like driving a car at night. The journey is long, but the headlights light up only a small part of the road. As we drive on, the headlights illuminate a new section of the road – and so on until we reach our destination. The point is we have to keep going.
The second word is “Mindfulness”. A book that helped me with this word is called “Coming To Our Senses – Healing Ourselves And the World Through Mindfulness,” by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Mindfulness means attention. It means being awake. It means deep breathing, meditation, and prayer. A French mystic, Simone Weil, wrote that attention without an object is prayer in its highest form. When an anthropologist asked the Lakota Chief Standing Bear what his people taught their children, Standing Bear replied, “We teach our children to look when there is nothing to see, and to listen when there is nothing to hear.” That’s mindfulness. Mindfulness is at the centre of a balanced life. It helps me control pain. It helps me wake up and see the beauty around me, and when I see that beauty I am astonished. Astonishment is a cornerstone of gratitude.
The third word is “Gratitude”. I pray almost constantly – giving thanks for the sun, the stars, and the people I meet. Here’s a quote from a poem called “Listen”, by W.S. Merwin:
“with the night falling we are saying thank you –
back from a series of hospitals, back from a mugging,
after funerals we are saying thank you,
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you,
in a culture up to its neck in shame
living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you,
over telephones we are saying thank you,
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators,”
The fourth word is “Compassion”. When I see intensely, when I listen intensely, I am open to the pain of another person, and I care for that person. And now I am in pain, and belong to the community of those who live in pain. This experience has deepened my compassion. The writer, Margaret Atwood, said, “The world seen clearly is seen through tears.” When I care, I am present for the other. I hear her words. As the Spanish philosopher, Miguel De Unamuno, said, “Bodies may be attracted by pleasure, but souls are attracted by pain.”
That brings us to the fifth word – “Community”. It seems to me that the community of those who live in pain includes just about everyone. We need each other. Human beings are gregarious animals, and caring and co-operation are more important for survival than competition and selfishness. In my view, women usually have a deeper understanding of caring relationships than men do, and Life is relationship – or as the Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber said, “Life is meeting,” and meeting builds community. But it only builds community if we can see and hear with mindfulness.
Here are the five words that have helped me find a way to live with pain. Intentionality, Mindfulness, Gratitude, Compassion, and Community. You will have other words that have helped you. Putting words down on paper is one way of finding out what we actually think about something, and sharing those words is a good way to start a dialogue.
~ Sandy Cameron