On Pain



It’s embarrassing to admit that through 82+ years, I was a virgin to pain. How ridiculously fortunate that is. No broken bones, no chronic illnesses, no surgeries since my tonsillectomy at age four or five. I regularly come upon reports that one out of four or five people suffer from chronic back pain, including my own dear wife, whom I often see doubled over in agony while I stand by helpless to offer relief. My sons-in-law, both considerably younger than I, have had to cope with chronic pain since their twenties, so we’re not talking about something that is linked to age. Just as we speak about unearned privilege in race, the same applies to the world of ability/disability, and I have certainly been a beneficiary of that privilege.

It’s been more than three weeks since the event I described in an earlier blog. I tripped over a manhole cover that was not flush with the surrounding pavement. Good news: I didn’t break anything. Bad news: I bruised my hip bone. It has been extremely painful to get into and out of bed, put on my shoes, sit on a toilet seat, walk across the room. I have been sidelined from all my usual physical activities – mornings on the elliptical and stationary bike, daily walks, using my dumbbells.

In my long years as a runner, I had to give up my daily runs several times because of stress fractures in my foot (by my definition, that doesn’t qualify as a broken bone) and illnesses I can no longer remember, but I do remember the psychological toll the inactivity took on me. It’s what I’ve been feeling these past weeks. The inertia made me sluggish, antsy, generally out of sorts in ways that I’m sure are explicable chemically. But inactivity aside, what I’ve been reminded about by this encounter with pain is that it takes a toll both internally and externally. It narrows your window on the world, makes it harder to think about much beyond the neurons that are misfiring. It erases too many of the positive facial expressions with which you normally greet the world. It makes you short-tempered and crabby with the people you love the most.

My pain these past weeks is temporary and short-lived. Just yesterday the cloud began to lift. I awoke determined to resume my morning routine on the elliptical, albeit for a shorter time than I usually plan for. It proved manageable. Later in the day, Rosellen and I resumed our walks along the lake, but for a shorter distance than our normal routine. In the three weeks I had been trapped at home, all the remaining leaves have been stripped from the trees, leaving the barren landscape I associate with November and December, a vista devoid of drama and beauty until the snow arrives to add luster to the scene.

Like the pain of pregnancy, my pain has a predictable life span, with the prospect of normality waiting at the other end. It’s a different creature from chronic pain with no relief in sight. Even at its height a combination of ibuprofen, Tylenol, CBD cream and cold packs were able to force a draw with pain and even make uninterrupted sleep possible. I feel like someone who has decided to sleep on the streets for a few nights to see what being homeless is like, knowing all the while that I have a home to return to. It’s just not the same as pain with no end and few, if any, means to shove it safely into the background for more than a few brief moments.

My experience has helped me recognize the true heroism of the sufferers of chronic pain. They manage to carry on their normal business, sometimes at an astonishingly high level of engagement and creativity. They are able to maintain loving relationships with spouses, children, friends and work colleagues. I’m now in a position to appreciate what a herculean task that is in the face of relentless suffering and discomfort.

At my stage of life, this brief encounter with pain could easily be a dress rehearsal for future episodes for which there won’t be any easy exits. I’m determined to use the lessons I’ve learned – and which I continue to learn daily from Rosellen – to try to move through the world in a way that is not defined entirely by pain. I don’t want to be a burden to my friends and loved ones. But pain is a powerful taskmaster, capable of hollowing out well-intentioned resolutions.

Meanwhile, I am taking the opportunity offered by a rare mild December day to head to my garden to complete the process of putting it to bed for the winter, a process that was interrupted by my injury. I’m not sure how my body will stand up to the effects of the lingering injury. The natural cycle imposes demands on those who choose to partner with it, and I’m committed to answer its call for as long as my body allows.

There’s also psychic pain that can be just as debilitating as the physical. The current cause for me is the latest assault at the hands of one of those anti-CRT book banning groups whose name Moms For……(fill in the blank) behind which is usually hiding a Black Money-funded group having little to do with Moms of any kind. One of the group’s current campaigns is the children’s picture book about Ruby Bridges’ integration of her New Orleans elementary school. It’s one of the most uplifting tales of that era, depicting the courage of a small child to stand against an angry racist mob bent on depriving her of the education to which she is legally entitled.

So, why do the “Moms” want to protect their children from Ruby? Because the book contains photos of angry mobs outside her school door shouting threats at her and bearing placards with unspeakable epithets. These are REAL pictures of REAL events, mind you, but encountering them will upset their children, cause them discomfort. How are we ever going to get beyond some of the ugly aspects of our collective history if we choose to not even acknowledge its existence? We don’t overcome personal trauma by suppressing it. The same is true of the collective variety. Burying it only causes it to surface in unhealthy ways. So, Moms, whoever you are, step aside and let your children learn from the actions of a little Black girl what heroism really looks like.

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Marv Hoffman
By Marv Hoffman

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