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.
I 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 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.