A century

Yesterday’s little Idlepost grew more than three times in length overnight, while I was sleeping. Or rather, I was not sleeping, thanks to the wandering of a spinal disc that “slipt,” twenty years ago. This introduced me to “a world of pain” (line from the comic movie, The Big Lebowski, 1998), in which I live with many other people: too many, alas, to earn any of us a return on moaning. Still, one moans when one can, even prayerfully to God.

The world is full of advice, and I have hesitated to write this not from fear of being marked as a whiner, but rather fear of the emails I might be inviting, suggesting various cures. Trust me: over twenty years, one becomes well-briefed. And: thanks for your prayers, and your encouragement, and forgiveness when I fall behind the mail.

Pain management has been a way of life in every generation; and there were many more before the discovery of modern painkillers, than there have been since. It is part of the human condition, and as I was remarking recently, it is something that distinguishes us from the other animals. They all seem to be healthy and whole: for the simple reason that, in nature, the animal not in perfect condition is picked off. A slipt disc, for instance, would be curtains for a creature whose defence against predators is to outrun them.

I saw a rabbit once, in imperfect condition, being run down by a hunter’s dog on an open grassy field. After a pro forma dash of perhaps thirty yards, and only one deak to send the dog skidding, he just sat there. Perhaps it was the combination of the distance and my imagination: it seemed the rabbit was at peace, when the dog took him. That, or he was frozen in fear. We, or more precisely, I, cannot read minds. Not even hare brains.

Humans, too, might behave nobly from ignoble motives; I’ve done that myself a time or two, so that the praise I received sounded in my ears like a terrible condemnation, and I owned to the truth to make it stop. But to assume an ignoble motive, is ignoble.

Like the rabbit, I gather, did many Christians in the Forum behave, as the starved lions came for them; and likewise, countless other Christians, who have gone to their executioners through the centuries, grasping the futility of flight: “Here, this is my body.” And too, some noble pagans, as the virgin Polyxena, in a line from Euripides’ Hecuba that has haunted me since I was a schoolboy: “Here, young man, if you want to stab my heart; or here is my neck, if you’d rather cut my windpipe.”

Others, I am sure, are so overtaken by anxiety, that they scream and yell. I was told once by an old soldier that persons condemned to the firing squad have their hands tied behind for their own dignity. There is an animal impulse to guard against blows with flailing arms, which in the circumstance is quite pointless. The modern convention is to administer tranquillizers, as a way to avoid embarrassing scenes. This must undermine the work of grace, however, and confuse judgement in the prisoner’s last moments. Therefore it strikes me as unChristian.

It is in that context we must consider “mere pain,” not as an end but a beginning. Often, I think, worse than the pain, is the anxiety that goes with it. One’s attention is focused on the disease, uselessly, if the pain is to go on and on. It makes sense to focus on impending death, with all of our spiritual resources; but it is morbid to focus on disease in this way.

This, incidentally, is my one hundredth consecutive daily essay. After reflecting on my situation at the end of November — the combination of acute physical pain, and financial desperation; the incurable nature of the pain, and the unlikelihood of finding adequately paid writing or speaking engagements, given my orthodox Catholic views — I tried prayer. I do not expect simple answers, for God does not write an agony column, nor reply to voicemails in sequence. But when I phrased the question simply (“Give me a clew!”) my mind formed the answer. It was to make the pain my goad, to write these essays: not when in the mood, but daily. Since, I notice, God has provided, and my prediction that I would starve by Christmas did not come true.

So what shall I do now? Continue.