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Pain is an Untrustworthy Compass
Your responses to Ross Douthat's The Deep Places
Other Feminisms will be off next week for Thanksgiving. My brother handles potatoes, and I’ve gotten permission to take on the apple pie. When I come back, I’ll share highlights from your discussion of the fertility gap and the shrinking extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins.
And as a heads up: Plough is hiring now for their summer internships. You get to work on the excellent magazine and live in community with the Bruderhof. It’s the kind of experience that expands your sense of how it is possible to live.
I shared my review of Ross Douthat’s The Deep Places, his memoir of wrestling with Lyme disease. He falls out of the logic of the ordinary meritocracy, where hard work and talent is always rewarded, into the shadow meritocracy of chronic illness. Here, the coin of the realm is the willingness to suffer and take chances of iffy cures because what you are living is unendurable.
I asked you:
Where have you been tempted to measure your capacity to love or your moral worth by your present suffering?
What alternatives to “the worse the better” have you found? Or what alternatives have you offered as a lifeline to others?
Melanie made a good point about being willing to sacrifice… but not using pain as a compass.
I grew up with a “harder is better” mentality, and I’m still unlearning it. Part of that process was the pendulum swing toward avoiding suffering because I was actively working against that martyr mindset. Where I’d like to end up is in a place where I can focus on the correct “ends.” I’m moving forward in my vocation with an eye toward the good things I’m called to, which will likely involve some degree of suffering, but the suffering isn’t what I’m seeking. I hope I can accept it as peacefully as possible as part of the journey and not focus on it as a sign of God’s approval or a sign that I must be on the right track.
It’s ok for something important to be easy, or to bring consolation. This was a big stage along the road of my conversion to Catholicism.
Long before I entered the Church, I had a smaller conversion, from deontology to virtue ethics. It’s a long story, but here’s part of how I’d gloss it:
I used to believe that acting rightly was most admirable when it was hard—when you were divided against yourself or having to push down selfishness to do the right thing. I measured my worth by that feeling of straining against and triumphing over myself.
Virtue ethics offered a different view of the moral life. The goal is to internalize the moral law, until it doesn’t feel alien—it sinks into your bones until it becomes the path that feels natural. Or, to borrow from Gerard Manley Hopkins:
I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is
Coming back down to earth a little, Courtney had a thoughtful reflection on what kinds of sacrifice feel hardest to offer for a friend with chronic illness.
A close friend of mine is struggling with several chronic fertility conditions (PCOS, endometriosis, adenomyosis, and then some) that cause a whole host of symptoms and pain, and I felt rightfully called-out by the paragraph in Ross's book you cite about the relative ease of rising to an “occasion.” I've found it easier to be there for her in moments of specific, acute need, such as the aftermath of a surgery, than to be present for the daily grind of her feeling ill in various ways. And I've noticed that it's easier for me to keep a “vigil,” as you described, while she works through her *emotions* about these conditions and what they imply for her hopes about children, etc., than to be there for the embodied aspects of her suffering. I think because those things feel like something I'm actively giving, in a way that brings us closer, whereas things like recognizing that sometimes she'll want to cut an evening short because she's not feeling well, etc., just feel like they pull us apart.
It’s tough when the sacrifice you’re willing to make isn’t the one that’s being asked. It might be that what’s asked feel too unspecialized—something anyone can do, rather than something that touches on the real gifts you’ve been given that you want to share.
It might be that it’s hard in a way you feel less prepared to deal with, and I really appreciate Courtney teasing out that giving her friend space to rest feels more like leaving than helping, no matter how her friend experiences it.
At a smaller scale, I make this mistake at home. When my husband is tired, I notice he’s subdued, and then I rapid-fire conversational topics at him in the hopes of finding one he’ll enjoy and find enlivening. After five years of marriage, I’m getting better at asking, “Are you tired? Would you like it to be quiet?” but I still have to get over my chatterbox instinct that quiet is unfriendly.
Lorrie recognized some of her own experience in Douthat’s—though her feelings about her time on the fringes were very different.
I grew up being sent to faith healers and all sorts of alternative practitioners for a condition I was born with. I got conventional medical treatment also, but sometimes delayed or undermined. I was often encouraged to "creatively visualize" my pain away instead of treating it. None of it worked. One of my tasks of adulthood has been to reorganize my thought processes from ones that were formed by these experiences. I do think it is very different to have had this experience in childhood as opposed to adulthood. (I found some parts of the review difficult to read and had to remind myself that the author sought out these experiences as an adult.)
What helped? Radical honesty about how life involves suffering and that not all suffering can be avoided, cured, explained, or be redemptive. Learning to seek palliation as opposed to cure. Good boundaries and realizing that not everyone I love is entitled to my trust. And finally, a sort of self-forgetfulness, a letting go of the belief that health and illness is some great drama in which the individual is the protagonist.
This touches on one of the central tensions Douthat wrestles with. He certainly feels he wins a certain degree of recovery by being willing to struggle, suffer, and take chances. If he had simply accepted the reality that not all suffering can be escaped, he might have missed alleviating what could be helped.
But he also has a moment along the road of his recovery, when a doctor tells him this might be as good as it gets, and that he can live with that because he is living with it, and his whole being rebels. The idea that the road upward to health might end before his destination is very hard for him to live with.
And, of course, people who are more vulnerable, because of age, sex, or race are more likely to have their options for healing foreclosed early, because their doctors don’t fight for them and they may not be armed to fight for themselves. It’s hard to have to second guess the people caring for you, unsure of when to accept their recommendation to learn to live within your new limits and when to ignore them and struggle on.