“Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” (Buddhist proverb)
Take a look at the first image, I wonder what you can see. It’s not a very clear image, partly because the art piece is difficult to photograph, but partly because the meaning of the piece, Ask No Questions, is intentionally obscured. In it I used drawings of my hands to make an artist’s book as an expression of how I felt physically every day for a month, and I did not feel well a lot of the time.
I live with a chronic pain condition. Most of the time, you would not know I do; it is as they say, an invisible illness and I manage it well enough to get on with life. But every so often, it gets to unmanageable proportions, usually when I have overdone things. Things that you might take for granted can send me over the edge. Lockdown has given me a reprieve from driving and, sadly, dancing (two of the triggers) and so, overconfident, I have recently overstretched my abilities and taken myself to the place of pain killers, frozen peas and hot water bottles. And it’s not just the physical agony, but the frustration of not being able to do what I want, the exhaustion of pain, the depression it brings, the helplessness, and possibly worst of all, the loss of my independence.
I recently heard the Chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury talking on the radio about her experience of having had Covid 19 and its ongoing long-term effects. She framed her deeply honest account with a story from the bible in which Jesus heals two people: an unnamed woman who has an invisible illness and a young girl whose father was the Leader of the Synagogue: a local celebrity, a powerful man. Jesus was on his way to heal his twelve-year-old daughter when, surrounded by a thronging (and definitely not socially distanced!) crowd, he felt that someone has touched him. His disciples were incredulous – of course people have been touching him, they were all around! But what Jesus has felt was the gift of healing flowing from him to the woman, who anonymously touched his robe. She had suffered with severe haemorrhaging for twelve years, a condition which would have ostracised her from the rest of her society as she would have been seen as unclean. She had spent all her money on medics and was not better. If anything, she was worse. This was her last-ditch attempt to be well.
The chaplain drew our attention to the fact that often, in our desire to mend situations and people, we rush to the urgent and acute need, whilst dismissing or ignoring the much more difficult and complex chronic problem. Jesus was under pressure to hurry, the man’s daughter was seriously ill after all, and yet he took time to call out the woman and talk with her about her healing. Indeed, her encounter with Jesus came with a price tag, because the little girl died. All was well in the end, and in due course, Jesus brought the famous man’s daughter, who had lived for exactly the same number of years as the woman had suffered, back to life and health.
I have a friend who has been mentally ill for a long time. I visit her regularly but if I’m honest, its hard work to spend time with someone who rarely responds to conversation. I am told that she values my visits, but I have had to let go of the importance of this for me, because actually, whether I feel like I’m doing good or not doesn’t matter. As the chaplain says, it’s hard to sit with those who are not going to get better. But maybe we need to let go of our desire to fix things sometimes.
And maybe there is a lesson here for our country and our government at this difficult time. Because it’s not going to go away with quick fixes and instant knee jerk responses. We are going to have to sit with it, work out how to manage it long term so that eventually we are healed, both from illness and from its effects on our communities, our economy, our lifestyles. Maybe this is an opportunity to look at those ongoing underlying chronic issues which the current acute crisis has brought to our attention.
The second picture was an artwork made by my friend when I first met her a while ago. She had been to visit Auschwitz to see how disabled people had been treated and she made artworks about the piles of hearing aids, false teeth, walking aids and glasses that she saw. In this piece she tried to explain how we need to see society differently: to reimagine a fairer and more caring environment where all are respected and treated with equanimity.
Take time to look at the pictures and consider these questions:
- What is chronic in our society?
- What is acute?
- How can we reimagine our world?
- How do we sit with the long term?
You will need a piece of paper, your hand, a pencil or pen
- Draw around your hand on the paper
- Take some time to think about what is acute in your life and the life of your community. Write or draw these inside your hand
- Think about the things that are more chronic, more endemic. Draw or write these outside your hand, maybe think about how some of these might touch your life and the life of your community. Perhaps you may want to place them on the paper in a way that expresses this
- What can you do about the chronic and the acute? How do you prioritise?