Living with Pain: The Search for Meaning

Living with Pain: The Search for Meaning

There comes a point in the struggle with chronic pain when the person under assault begins the search for meaning. This isn’t to say that meaning was lacking before the onslaught of pain, but when pain enters the picture our old sense of meaning in the world falls fallow as we face a difficult challenge.

The main questions we face early on are: Why me? Why now? Is life worth it? And if it is, what meaning is there in the fog of pain?

I’m not saying everyone faces these questions when their body goes sideways, but most of us do.

640px-The_Creation_MichelangeloI was raised a Catholic, even though my mother was an Episcopalian. Looking back on my childhood, I could see that being a Catholic I was not particularly religious. Yes, in some way I adhered to believing in God, but my belief was anchored in the concrete.

After my first confession, which I botched by consciously withholding a sin that I no longer remember, I knew from the beginning that I wasn’t really a child of God, but something of an impostor who consciously courted the fiery depths of hell.

I worried about my soul for years because I never confessed my earlier omission to my parish priest, sealing my damnation. Thus are the thoughts of the very young.

As I grew older, I identified myself with Catholicism as a member of the choir and more importantly the altar boy squad, until the 8th grade when it was discovered that I was the ring leader on the assault on the sacristy at lunch. I led a few like-minded heathens to gobble down the Eucharist bread — not yet consecrated — and drink the swill that passed for wine at Mass. I was ceremoniously drummed out of the core of reliable altar boys.

Before this, I realize by the 4th grade there was no God and that the church seemed nothing more than a social club. Even though I spent two more years in a Catholic high school, I knew I didn’t believe in God. By the time I was 15, I understood the word “atheist.”

In the next quarter century I found the Unitarian-Universalist Church. While religious, it didn’t require a belief in God. I became a peripatetic Unitarian. But even as a Unitarian, I didn’t feel the need of an ongoing church community.

In my early 40s, when it became all too apparent that I was to be a permanent subject in the Empire of Pain, I began to wonder just what the hell I was living for. Oh, yes, I lived for my son and my wife, but what higher purpose was left me? I floundered, alone, empty, and frightened about what the future held for me. But mostly I wondered what was the meaning of my life.

I tried to reconnect with my childhood church of Catholicism by going to church most Sundays and by participating in the parish life. I tried this for two years and found myself ever more alienated from my fellow parishioners, as I simply couldn’t believe in a God or support a church so cravenly involved in serial child sexual abuse.

In talking with my parish priest, a friend of mine in New York, I told him I was irrevocably leaving the church and he should do the same. He didn’t, I did.

Still, with pain stripping me of more and more of my life, I continued to search. Finally after moving to the bay area of northern California and spending months alone, frightened and depressed, I connected with a local Unitarian-Universalist congregation. After my first Sunday service I was hooked all over again.

Not only did I attend the wonderful Sunday services, I became involved in the life of the church. I explained to my new friends what brought me to them, and they accepted me, my broken body and mangled spirit; encouraging me to involve myself with them as I could.

By the time I reached out to this church I was desperately depressed, alone, isolated and in need of a serious kick in the ass. My new congregation provided the kick. I became deeply involved, as my body would allow, in our Unitarian-Universalist heritage of social justice. I worked as best I could on immigrant concerns, especially the break-up of immigrant families, as well as issues of poverty.

In the bargain I gained two very close friends whom I cherished and who looked after me. It was these friendships that stood in the way of my downward spiral. As I became more attached to the church and its wider missions of social justice, I began my climb out of despair and, yes, even pain.

I asked myself whether it was the Unitarian-Universalist tenants that claimed my allegiance or was it the like-minded progressive community that so appealed to me. I decided it was both, but with a heavy emphasis on my fellow travelers.

Now that we’ve moved back to Chicago, I’ve become involved with the First Unitarian-Universalist in Hyde Park and have become involved in a reading and writing program to help kids keep out of the clutches of my hometown’s ubiquitous gangs. I am also involving myself in my church’s social justice committee to combat racism. At the same time, I write when I can for a gun control group seeking sane gun laws.

But mostly it’s the people like me struggling with the meaning of their lives where I find the most support for my ailing body and soul.

For me, religion is the people I’ve grown to care for and love — who’ve repaid me with a lessening of pain and an anchoring in a loving, outward facing community.

This has been lifesaving. It might be for you, too.

Mark Maginn

Mark Maginn

Mark Maginn lives in Chicago where he is a poet, writer and social justice activist. Mark suffers from chronic pain and was a longtime volunteer with the American Pain Foundation. His blog “Left Eye Blind” can be found here.

The information in this column is not intended to be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Only your doctor can do that!  It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s personal experiences and opinions alone. It does not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of National Pain Report or Microcast Media.

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Thank you so much for your response Mark. I appreciate you sharing the experiences that have worked for you. I will definitely keep them in mind as I move forward in my journey.

Oh, Taryn, I’m spinning. I reread your comment and realized the confusion. Yes, you quoted me correctly, but I didn’t say that God was “involved in serial sexual abuse.” I’m afraid that was your interpretation, but it alerts me to the fact that when writing on controversial events I need be more careful. In hindsight, I would have separated that sentence into 2 sentences, thus avoiding possible confusion. I don’t mind controversy, but I do mind self-generated confusion on my part.

Comments for comments.

Thank you so much, Denis. I really appreciate you sharing with our readers your thoughts on this, you’ve obviously done your homework. Even as an atheist, I strongly urge readers to connect with your thoughtfulness.

I’m happy for your discovery, Joy.

I know what you mean, Stephanie, I was right there years ago. You are certainly the best judge of what you can/cannot do and I wouldn’t challenge that for the world. In my case, even in the depths of pain I would respond occasionally to petition on line. As I found I could do that, I joined an on-line group and participated as I could. Eventually, I connected with the Pain Foundation and paced myself for writing when I could on-line. If you can find the smallest way to reach out beyond yourself even just a few minutes a month you might find a growing strength, and then again, you might not. In a meditative way, when I couldn’t participate, I would meditate on the growing strength of those in pain, sending them through the clogged ether my best thoughts. It was getting out of my ruined husk even through just thoughts that eventually led me to where I am now. I’m not saying, or even implying you should do or think as I, but an outward focus, even for small bits of time seem to server those of us in pain well. My favorite Spanish saying to you, Vaya con Dios.

Thanks Taryn for pointing out a clumsy typo. I never meant to say that God approved the systemic child abuse rampant in the Catholic body. The concept of God is in my mind, with this column separate from the church hierarchy. My apology for the unnecessary confusion. I do stand by my statement that his abuse was approved by the hierarchy, but, again my statement was inelegant. What I meant was that by doing nothing or shuffling around abusing clergy, the Catholic hierarchy gave de facto approval to the hideous sin in their ranks. Even with this clarification, you may still be offended, but I at least wanted my thoughts to be clear. Thanks for pointing it out.

Beautifully written and such a wonderful message. This parallels my own experience, it was when I began to look outside of illness, and to the needs of others, that my life regained meaning.
I would only add that in the first years of chronic illness and pain, all I could manage was trying to figure out what was happening to me, who could help and how to change my life to accommodate this new reality.
Then, when I began to stabilize, I was able to turn my focus outside myself and illness. I found the quiet life that illness demanded of me a great contributor to a more deep and personal spiritual life, a silver lining.

Boy Mark, you hit on a huge one here. It reminds me of my lowest point and that scares the hell out of me. When I went on my Walk I met many, many people in pain who, like me, and you, had lost all meaning of life and religion and wanted to blame God for our demise and suffering. As I stated many times, the Walk was my way of finding the “why’s” of what happened to me. After talking to many religious people, some very “old school” and some very progressive, and even a lot of atheist scientist types, I formed this understanding, of church, of religion and of why some of us are chosen to suffer this way. See if this helps you understand it or at least give you a reason to keep going forward. This would be a mixture of religious dogma, metaphysics and spiritual science, and maybe my own imagination. God is waging an ongoing battle in Heaven, a battle between good and evil. Spiritual energy is being used at a high rate all the time by the good and evil beings alike. There are many ways that God tries to keep the “Guff” full including prayers, meaningful rituals and those humans designated to do battle in the spiritual realm, to name a few. On Earth there is also the fight between good and evil. Good has come a long way historically and has built up a good amount of spiritual energy, but it only serves to help keep this earthly plane on a good keel. So how does God get intense, emotional, passionate energy up to Heaven to aid in the war? He picks certain humans, people whom He thinks can handle it, and presses them with earthly suffering. So difficult is this pressure that, like the biblical Job, we find ourselves questioning everything. Nothing seems to go right. Every step we take presents us with more troubles, financial, relationship, self-validating trouble. Every time we think we have it under control, something else happens to drive us deeper into the wash cycle. But within this struggling, emanating from this despair and anguish, and especially from the control we use to hold ourselves back from going over the edge, is high density, intense spiritual energy, the kind Job emitted during his struggles. As we become educated and aware of the cycle of pain and learn to live with it, especially those of us who actually beat it and find happiness and joy and productivity again, the power is enormous. God can use this energy in Heaven to fight evil. To me, this is why so many people use expressions like “pain warriors”, and “Angels on the Earth” and other beautiful phrases to describe people who venture forth with life despite the pain they are in. This explained so much to me. I saw in person, hundreds of people from every walk of life going through the same crap, including the very old, the very… Read more »

I really enjoyed your article as I only a couple of days ago I wrote a blog post about how I have lost my faith due to my ongoing struggle with chronic pain.

I know that if I could be involved in some social justice capacity I would actually have a sense of purpose like you have found. I am quite disabled by the pain now though so being able to commit to any type of volunteer work is really not possible.

Anyways thank you for your article.


“I simply couldn’t believe in a God or support a church so cravenly involved in serial child sexual abuse.”

Seriously? That’s pretty offensive. And inaccurate. God and the Church aren’t involved in serial child sexual abuse; yes, there have been some very serious transgressions by some leaders, but the Church itself – and definitely God – never condoned them.