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Sabbath Day – The Isolating Power of Pain

February 15, 2013

A week ago I inexplicably woke up with pain in my lower back. I shuffled through my Friday routine at the church, not quite myself but still functioning. I spent my Saturday disconnected from myself, working on a sermon but watching myself, from a distance, as I did it. It is only thanks to my wife that the sermon was grounded at all.

I woke up on Sunday morning feeling better, my back looser, pain free in fact, until I bent over to spit out my toothpaste. At that point my back locked, my muscles seized, and I dropped to the floor in pain.  I stubbornly convinced myself that I could still lead worship. I walked to church, printed out my sermon, practiced it in the pulpit, and left its pages lying on the Bible. I should have known by the way  I was gripping the wooden lectern that I was in trouble. I decided I was in too much pain to sing with choir, and so headed to my office to relax for a few moments, only to be stopped in conversation with an elder of the church. After only two or three minutes I realized I was no longer listening but trying to work out the increasing pain in my back. I lay down on my office floor and within minutes discovered I could not get back up. In the end, my wife delivered my sermon and a colleague led the rest of the service, while I lay on my back in my office. I have been flat on my back much of the rest of the week.

Professor Elaine Scarry of Harvard University has written in The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World that the experience of pain is somehow beyond words. She describes the isolating, world destorying power of pain. “As pain grows, the world shrinks.” This is countered, she argues, only by the world making power of human creativity.

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I must admit that while my world often shrunk to the size of a couple of vertebrae, I never felt isolated. I was surrounded by a community of prayer, enjoyed the concern of my faith community, and stayed engaged in the work of ministry. Despite spending Monday through Wednesday in therapeutic postions on my back, with a steady diet of Percocet, I managed to redesign our church website, work on my Lenten sermons, plan a family vacation, and find time to read Proust. When I was in too much pain to do anything else, I watched movies on Netflix.

OK. Perhaps a measure of the duration of my pain can be taken by the number of movies I watched. I began on Sunday with the cult classic Heathers, featuring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater: a fascinating and still brilliant commentary on our culture of violence-acceptance.

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This led to a virtual Winona-fest, eventually taking in nine films featuring Winona Ryder, including Mermaids,  Reality Bites (a telling description of my generation), and The Last Word, a surprisingly engaging film. Stay Cool stages a class of ’88 reunion (I’m HS class of ’87). Alienation and isolation were consistent themes in these films. Ryder’s choice of roles consistently speak to an alienated generation: from 1969  to her early goth role in Beetlejuice and her amazing performance in Girl, Interrupted, the isolating power of pain in its many forms cries out for human connection.

So at the end of this sabbath day I reflect not on the isolating power of pain but on the isolation of recovery. While I am on target to “put in” the hours of a normal work week at the church, I have not seen a soul from the congregation since Sunday. I have worked alone, or on the phone. While I have stayed connected through email, Facebook and Twitter, true sustaining community requires more than creative engagement – it requires face to face, flesh to flesh, presence.  While I am less sure my back is ready for the non-stop activity of Saturday and Sunday, I am looking forward to the human community of friends.

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