Monday, January 31, 2011

Who is God?

When I first started this blog over two years ago, the biggest issue I grappled with, other than the chronic pain, was whether or not God existed. My suffering was so great that my vision of the world became incredibly narrow, and it seemed that all I saw was suffering all around me. I couldn’t understand how God, if he existed, could let it happen.

I’ve been revisiting this question again in recent weeks as I find myself praying more, something I never thought I’d ever do again, and I’m wondering what has changed. Have I forgiven God for my state, or has my understanding of a greater power changed?

Yesterday I was doing some research, and I revisited the Amazon listing of When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold Kushner, a rabbi who lost his son to the premature aging disease, and was intrigued by the reader reviews. Many people gave the book five stars, thanking the good rabbi for restoring their faith in God again, but many also gave the book just one star, as they found themselves depressed by his belief in an impotent god—a god who suffers with us when we suffer, but who is powerless to intervene on our behalf.

Many readers had obviously suffered terrible tragedies in their lives, like losing a child, and they just couldn’t accept the notion of a supreme being not being able to step in with a miracle. One bereaved mother sadly said of her life, “I will never believe in God again.”

I remember having these exact feelings about my own life and about the book as well, as an impotent god seems about as good as having no god at all. While Kushner’s writing is beautiful, and his story is heartbreaking, I remember feeling sad when I first read his book, as perhaps back then I just didn’t want to believe that we live in such a random world.

Yet when I stop and think about it, I think the rabbi and I have come to similar conclusions about life and suffering—first, that random things do happen in this world, and second, that what we can count in terms of the divine is compassion, for ourselves and others.

Yet where we differ is perhaps the notion of God himself. The rabbi believes that he does indeed exist, and in his book I got the feeling that he just didn’t want to let go of the god of the Old Testament—the father figure sitting majestically in Heaven, overseeing us all in our daily lives. But what I’ve come to believe, I think, is that God is more of a force—something that moves within each of us, and manifests in the form of all good things, like truth, compassion, art and love.

While it’s true I suffer day in and day out (today was a very bad day, in fact), I have to remind myself that there are countless researchers and scientists out there who are uncovering the mysteries of pain every day, many of whom no doubt witnessed a loved one in their own lives who suffered with relentless pain.

They are motivated by compassion and love, as are all those who start research foundations to find cures for diseases. So many of these organizations are named for those who lost the fight, and it’s the loved ones left behind who become determined to right the wrong, so to speak, by not letting their loved ones die in vain. They are moved by compassion not to see other families similarly destroyed, and so they take up arms to raise money, to organize walkathons, to stimulate research.

When I pray these days, I find myself talking to the “Great Spirit,” and I’ve no idea why that particular name has surfaced. For one thing, it’s genderless in my mind, and I feel it almost like the wind—something I can’t see but that I know is there. It’s the source of all goodness, and when I speak to it, I can sometimes feel its love for me, as strange as that may sound. It’s more of a sense that it’s a force that is on my side, that is there to guide me through this treacherous minefield of life, and when I take the time to surrender my questions, I do indeed get answers, and this often startles me.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve by no means figured anything out, and I doubt anyone ever will. There’s simply no way any of us will ever figure out the mysteries of the universe, no matter how deep science may delve into the matter. All we have to go on is the proof as it arises, and the proof for me are these answers I seem to get when I take the time to look deeply into my heart and humbly ask for guidance.

Do I think this is God? Whatever it is, I’m grateful for its appearance, but I’m not suffering any the less because of it. In fact, most days still blur in this lingering malaise, and I do ask frequently why I, or anyone, have had to suffer at all.

Yet in the grand scheme of things, if there is indeed an afterlife, my life on this planet will truly seem like a fraction of a second when one thinks about how long our universe has been around. And maybe then I’ll understand why I had to suffer so during this particular tenure of my life on Earth.

Does that understanding of things help me right now? A little—for the moment, anyway.

Today I watched a History Channel show about the blood diamonds in Sierra Leone, and saw suffering on such a grand scale. It was an interesting juxtaposition to watch the horrors depicted in the show interspersed with commercials that reflect the beautiful lives we enjoy in our own culture. It made me want to do something, other than just sit and watch in horror, as I know just how frightening and harrowing life can be. I thought that perhaps I should look for a job with one of these organizations and put my writing skills to better use than just as a means to pay my bills.

Perhaps that’s the god force working within me—the tangible manifestation of compassion born out of the terrible suffering of my own. Maybe that’s who and what God really is, and maybe that’s enough—for now, anyway. It’s all rather new.


Tuesday, January 25, 2011

But for the grace of God go I

For my birthday last week, my dear friend Janet gave me the book The Power, which is the much-anticipated follow-up to the bestseller The Secret by Rhonda Byrne.

Even though I never read The Secret, a number of years ago, Janet and I were big fans of the Law of Attraction (LOA) after our discovery of the writings of Florence Scovel Shinn, who wrote about the phenomenon during the 1920s.

As anyone who is a fan of these books can attest, when you first learn about the Law of Attraction, you can feel quite excited, as suddenly you’re given this road map to life that actually has hard and fast rules to live by—rules that if supposedly followed will bring limitless joy and prosperity into your life.

What I always loved about Shinn’s work was that she didn’t just write about the LOA; she actually gave you exercises to do to activate it in your life. And what was so exciting was that when I began to employ her ideas, I did indeed see my life begin to change. I began to practice gratitude, I did my daily affirmations, I envisioned a better life for myself and I have to say, it began to be something of a heady experience—to live by these guidelines and have them produce an actual result in my life, for never had I felt so joyous and free, so in tune with a power that was greater than myself.

So why then when I read The Power this week did I feel like punching Rhonda Byrne?

The book is filled will relentless optimism, basically saying that when we activate love (which is “the power” of which she speaks), everything will change, and if we can activate it enough, we’re guaranteed a blissful existence beyond our wildest dreams. She peppers the book with extraordinary tales about ordinary men and women who made simple attitude adjustments and then found themselves in the midst of a miracle, be it a reinvigoration of a marriage, restored health or gargantuan amounts of money.

While few could argue that a positive attitude in life generally produces more positivity, what has come to frustrate me about the Law of Attraction is that it can create a false sense of security, so that when life throws in a random catastrophe, the believer is then left wondering what he or she did wrong to attract this horrific event, and frankly, I find this cruel.

This was certainly true of me in 2004, when a series of unbelievable health traumas left me in this state of chronic pain. When I look back on that year, I was probably living one of the happiest periods of my life, and I see now that I was living with a type of hubris that set me up for the fall. I was a full believer that my whirlwind of positive energy had me encased inside a type of protective shield, and I wonder now if I thought I was just a little bit better than the next guy as my belief system seemed to be working so well. Like the evangelical Christian who believes God is on his side, I was so in touch with “the universe” that I wonder now if I was holding my head just a little too high.

In that sense, I suppose I’m grateful for the fall, which are words I never thought I’d hear myself say. I’ve since let go of my absolute beliefs in the Law of Attraction, realizing now that anything good happening in my life back then was the result of positive thinking, for sure, but also just a streak of good luck. I was feeling healthy and robust after a few years of stressful health issues, and frankly, I was probably a bit manic as well, which is when mental pathology feels good for once. I seemed to have limitless energy, endless creative ideas, and bottomless motivation to make those ideas come to fruition.

While I’ll continue to employ the helpful aspects of the LOA, never again will I believe that there are no accidents in life, as I know now just how dangerous that thinking can be.

We all want to feel safe in our worlds, and the Law of Attraction can lead us astray in thinking that we’re safer than we really are. If we can blame ourselves for every bad thing that happens to us (that gossip session yesterday brought on today’s headache, that fear of not having enough money brought on today’s arrival of a huge bill—these examples are detailed in The Power), then life doesn’t seem so random, so strange, so frightening.

But the truth is that sometimes, life IS random, strange and frightening, and instead of causing a panic attack, a full-on acceptance of this uncomfortable truth ignites something far deeper and more beautiful, and that’s compassion.

The affirmation that comes to mind right now is “But for the grace of God go I,” which means that as we look around us, we bear witness to the awful suffering human beings can go through day in and day out, and we recognize that any one of us is just inches away from befalling a similar fate.

Instead of looking at our brothers and sisters with judgment, that they somehow attracted these horrendous events into their lives with their erroneous and negative thinking and is thus their own fault, we see them instead as children of the universe who truly are sometimes just the hapless victim who deserve our love and deepest sympathy.

I missed all that when I believed too deeply in the Law of Attraction.

The bottom line is that sometimes, bad things do indeed happen to good people, and there’s no sense to it at all. What a relief.

While we’re certainly responsible for our own happiness, finding that happiness is harder for some than for others, and it’s not their fault at all. There are all kinds of horrors in this life—third-world poverty, abusive homes, dying children, murderous rampages, falling skyscrapers, to name but a few, and most victims are just at the wrong place at the wrong time, and that's about as deep as it goes.

But for the grace of God go I.


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

You're going to do WHAT?

When the bad days erupt, they can feel like a slow controlled explosion, with each passing hour feeling worse than the one that just came before.

This past week, I’ve been trying to reduce my morphine dose, as I’m seeing a new holistic doctor in New York City, who has put me on a nutritional regimen that is suppose to reduce my pain. But I’m still on a hefty dose of the stuff, which combined with all these new vitamins he has me on, landed me in the hospital the other night with a case of constipation that was literally off the charts.

As embarrassing as telling this tale might be, it’s a grim and somewhat common reality that anyone who takes opiates, whether by choice or not, must deal with the sometimes extreme irregularity it causes, and Saturday night at 3 a.m. will go down in the annals of my life as yet another indignity my poor body has suffered as a result of this unrelenting pain.

It’s happened before—this extreme constipation, indelicately called fecal impaction—but somehow I was always able to, er…well, push through. You would think that one would be able to tackle the problem with some basic laxatives long before it would get to these end stages, but for some reason, it often can happen hard and fast (oh, these puns), with little warning that a huge amount of cement is building up where it ain’t supposed to be.

Each time it’s happened, I’ve sworn that it would be the last time, that I would do whatever it took to prevent these occurrences, but the new supplements must have been my undoing this week, for when the clock struck around 3 a.m. Saturday morning, and all measures I’d been employing for the previous eight hours or so had failed, I intuitively knew I’d been beaten and that this time, I’d have to go to the emergency room, as even waiting until morning could make this dangerous case even more perilous to my health. Plus, having a brick sitting in your bowel feels like, well…a brick sitting in your bowel, and you want it out as quickly as humanly possible.

I did get myself to the emergency room, and luckily I didn’t have to wait too long for a young male doctor to come in and remedy the situation, which was basically sticking his finger up my ass in order to break up and pull out the offending material a little at a time. But oh, the indignity…and the discomfort! I can’t believe that we can put a man on the moon, but the best we can come up with when it comes to a clogged pipe is manual dexterity.

Before he took the plunge, I asked in astonishment if there was any other way, if there was any magic potion they could shoot up there to break things up, but he said somewhat curtly, “Nope. I just have to get in there, and it’s nasty.”

He then told me to take down my pants and roll over, as a nurse stood by, pan in hand, ready for the rocks. Before I knew it, he’d put on two pairs of rubber gloves, greased up, then plunged in with such ferocity that I grabbed onto the side of the bed for dear life, fearing that my poor anus was being ripped from its moorings.

He wasn’t in there for even a minute when the intercom clicked in, saying he had a phone call. “Excuse me,“ he said, removing the gloves, “but I have to get this.” “What?” I whimpered, shocked that any phone call could be more important than stopping in the middle of a procedure such as this. As one might imagine, a patient in this position wants the entire matter over as quickly as possible, and it felt like an hour for him to return as my poor butt was throbbing, even though it was probably just a few minutes.

It gave me just enough time to ponder how awful it was going to feel all over again when he returned, and my imagination didn’t disappoint. He was just as vigorous the second time around, to which I grunted, “How long is this going to take?” “Oh, a few more minutes,” he said, which inspired such fear in me that I gave a mighty push, and well, the matter resolved itself from then on in just a few seconds to the surprise of both him and the nurse. They both acted like a baby was coming as they rushed to get the pan underneath me, realizing that nature was taking its course in a way I just couldn’t control.

And just like that it was all over, and before I knew it, I was back in my apartment, back in bed tending to my severe case of bronchitis and fever, which felt like kids’ play compared to what I’d just been through.

Since then, I’ve been trying to reduce my morphine even more, and I’ve been staying away from the supplements for now, but frankly, I’m miserable. The pain in my face is too fierce right now to reduce the morphine any more, and I was in tears most of the afternoon, wondering how in god’s name my life has come to this—that I’m on so much pain medication that I actually needed an emergency room doctor this week to pull a brick out of my butt with his bare, if gloved, hands.

The poor guy didn’t even stick around for me to thank him. I did thank the nurse though, who was left with the grunt work, ‘natch, of throwing out my poop. I told her I was sorry that I’d come in with such an unpleasant task, but she couldn’t have been nicer, shrugging off the whole ordeal with, “Honey, this is what we’re here for. We’re here to help, and it’s not just you…this happens to people all the time.”

And with that I walked out a little easier than I walked in, if a little bowlegged.


Sunday, January 09, 2011

The Bust-Out Power of Journalling

I'd forgotten how dazzling, exciting and soothing daily journal writing can be.

After the holidays had ended, I was feeling such a terrible void, which isn't that unusual, I suppose, at this time of year, but the whole season seemed to have a void to it, despite how busy I was. On the surface, I probably looked happy. My online Etsy shop--filled with all kinds of my art-related goodies--was doing well, and I was commissioned by six clients to do a pet portrait. And my pain level was holding steady, kept in check by a moderate daily morphine dose.

There really didn't seem to be any overt reason for me to feeling such a deep malaise, during the holidays or after, but there it was, grinding away at me day in and day out, and yet I couldn't even cry about it, which was really strange for me, as weeks earlier, it seemed I couldn't turn off the daily waterworks.

Very early in the season, I was so tearful that when an old friend, who I hadn't seen in about 15 years, came over to pick up her pet portrait, the tears came out in an embarrassing flood when she asked me the simple question as to how I was doing. I knew the dreaded words were coming while she was catching me up on her own life (with me laughing and smiling the whole time), and I kept saying to myself, "Please don't ask me how I'm doing. Please don't ask me how I'm doing." She did, of course, and the more I tried to regain my composure as I spoke, the more the explosion built up steam.

It all turned out fine, as she's as much a dear now as she was then, but I was indeed perplexed by my post-holiday numbness, and decided it must be the morphine, which only added to my malaise, as right now, it's just something I can't live without.

I don't know what made me do it, but I decided on New Year's Eve to seek out my journal and just start writing automatically, not to make any discoveries necessarily, but just to break the logjam of my feelings, which had come to a full halt. And what a break I made.

It's amazing what feelings lurk inside us when we just stop for 20 minutes or so, and really let them surface. At first, I wrote that I should go off the morphine at all costs, as I just couldn't stand the blankness of my life anymore, but suddenly, little glimmers of other matters began to appear. The first entry gently percolated with what family gatherings do to my feelings of self-worth, especially when I'm sick and in pain, and I found myself praying on paper for guidance, as I was so at a loss as to what to do next.

I ended with, "I need a miracle," and sure enough, the next day while talking to Glori, my therapist, while telling her that I just can't cry anymore, that the morphine has put me out of touch with any and all feeling, a few sniffles suddenly turned into a flood of tears about how yet another year has passed with me being in pain, and the sorrow I felt about it was overwhelming.

"My dear," she said. "I believe you are in touch with your feelings just fine."

Since then, I've made the effort to write every day, and the results have been unusually soothing, as any good purge of emotion usually is. Unlike my blogging, which is more controlled and meant for others to read, my journal writing is often splashes of sentences that only I can understand, filled with run-on phrases, misspellings, and deeply private feelings meant for my eyes alone.

While I'm as honest as possible in my blog, my journal writing is really honest, where I can vent and reach into the darkest corners of my soul, often with some trepidation, but always rewarded, as even if I don't discover an answer, I do always end with a prayer to the Great Spirit, asking for guidance, courage or whatever else I might feel I'm lacking at the moment, and the hope those words bring is always reassuring.

Perhaps the greatest discovery, which came from my session with Glori that day, was something I've let lapse, and that's been writing here.

At one point, Glori and I were doing an updated treatment plan (I see her at a clinic), and she asked me what I hoped to achieve with our sessions in the coming months. At first, my answers were very self-centered, as I seemed to answer by rote, with the old chestnuts like, "I'd like to be happier," "I'd like to become more social," "I'd like to feel less anxious," etc.

And then she asked me about my writing, which I've always felt has helped not just me, but others as well. When I started this blog well over two years ago, it was at first a way to give meaning to a harrowing experience simply by expressing it. But in time, as certain comments were made, I saw that the sharing of the experience had a reverberating effect that went far deeper than I'd ever anticipated when I started.

I haven't had to offer any answers here, or any deep insights, or even clever writing. I've just had to be honest, even when that honesty reveals that I just spent three days in my pajamas and I feel like crap. It's those entries that sometimes resonate most of all for others suffering similarly, and this has caught me completely by surprise.

When Glori reminded me that thinking of others will come back to me a thousandfold, I knew what I had to do, which is coming back to my blog and continuing the chronicling of this bizarre journey.

And that's what some simple journal writing has led to. In the search to find answers, the answer is simply to be honest and continue the search, and perhaps most important, to share the experience with others, for it's in the sharing of the journey that the healing truly begins.