Implicit in the last blog post is an understanding that physical pain comes attached with certain emotions and thoughts that are unique to the individual, depending upon their past experiences and situations that are still affecting the present. Often, we are oblivious to these subconscious processes that keep us bound in the past with its pain.
The good news is that, with intentional work, we can uncover the thoughts and narratives we have surrounding our pain.
I like to work narratively by reflecting upon the story or stories around a particular pain and the injury that caused it. Why? Because our primary beliefs and thoughts about the world are often formed narratively. We make meaning narratively. We know who we are and our location in the world through the stories we’re told (“On the day you were born . . . “) or tell ourselves (“I’m just a simple pig farmer from Iowa . . . “). Stories are more complex than just thoughts. They include experiences, feelings, history, thoughts, and beliefs than we’re often unaware of until we examine the story. So what are the stories around your pain?
For instance, I was massaging my own neck and realized the fascial mess I was feeling was part of an old whiplash injury. I started thinking about what happened in the months of intense pain following that injury. My life was on hold. I had to take incompletes in my graduate work because I couldn’t finish the semester’s papers. It hurt too much to read and write, though I tried. I had trouble concentrating. And my husband at the time was emotionally distant, which was distressing to me. (More on this later. Interestingly enough, as I write these words, I realize that I’m holding the muscles in that area of my body. My life in this part of my body is still on hold, as it were. My body remembers this narrative, and it hasn’t figured out that that time has passed because, in many ways, it’s still stuck in the past.) As I’m gently working on this fascia, I tell myself that it is time to help my body let go of the past by doing some deeper narrative work.
Before I can tell you about uncovering my narrative around this pain, I need to lay down some background terms. As most of you know, I’m also a Christian theologian and minister. I’m gonna tell you about some Christian definitions because they’re helpful in thinking about how we all deal with pain. Your spiritual journey may have other terms that are similar, and I invite you to think about them in a similar way—not necessarily with the same outcome, but with a similar process that leads you to your own uncovering of the truths you’re holding about your own pain.
In Christian terms, uncovering the truth about something is an apocalypse. The Greek word apocalypse literally means an uncovering, like peeling back the various wings of the seraphim (angels) who cover God (see Isaiah 6). An apocalypse is a divine revelation. Part of an apocalypse, though, involves a judgment of what’s wrong with reality that keeps hurting us (we call that sin in Christian tradition). Keep these terms in mind as we recount the narrative.
First, though, a few more terms. One of the most interesting things about Jesus’ ministry is that he was a healer. And one of the ways in which he healed people was not only by laying hands on them, but by exorcising demons. Now stick with me here because I’m going to be speaking metaphorically about the importance of this for us today, despite our current scientific worldview. Exorcism is about casting out that that which has us bound in patterns of pain and destruction. Curiously enough, the Greek word for forgiveness is also about unbinding. To forgive someone is to unbind them from obligation to you, to forgive them their debt. Forgiveness also unbinds us as well, however. When we forgive someone, we let go of all our consternation around what they’ve done to us and why, etc., etc., etc. We just unbind it, cut it loose. We leave the judgment to God, cast out the evil in Jesus’ name, and ask the Holy Spirit to fill the space in our lives that we’ve given to being all bound up in sin that is now empty. This is hard, hard work, work that we often have to keep doing over and over again until our body, mind, and spirit all live into the new reality of more wholeness.
Now, back to the story of my neck (if you’re still awake). I thought about my first husband’s emotional distance, and I know the reason why: his mother gained cloying attention by being sick a lot when he was a boy, and he was expected to take care of her emotionally during those times because his father was away working. This was overwhelming to a child who didn’t know what to do with all of those emotions. So he learned early how to just tune out and He married me because I am quite independent, and when suddenly I needed him because I was in pain, he got all bound up in his past that he hadn’t had enough time and distance to work through. His mother was bound by the sin of her father’s alcoholism, and who knows what caused him to drink. Here we see the generational nature of sin and the pain it causes as it puts us in its bind.
I also had my own past demons that were at work. I grew up in a household where you were just supposed to suck up any pain you were feeling and carry on, and I embodied that philosophy. I was a theatre major in college where I also learned that no matter what, the show must go on. So I willed myself to carry on in spite of the pain, and I didn’t persist in seeking the treatments I needed, thus delaying my healing and setting up chronic pain’s vicious cycle. Growing up, I also came to believe that if I expressed hurt, it wouldn’t do any good; no one would respond, so I’d just have to take care of myself. When my husband didn’t respond sympathetically to my pain because of his own demons, this belief got reinforced.
Yet the pain persisted. Decades later, it’s still bad some days. The damage in my neck’s soft tissue means that sleeping on the wrong pillow can mess my neck up for days. The resultant pain will kick in all these deep beliefs, and my pain vicious cycle is off and running.
So the other day, as I gently massaged the damaged fascia, I thought about all these things, and I decided it was time to let them go, to unbind them and set them free, sending all these harmful beliefs back to where they came from, and to invite the Holy Spirit to fill the space they’ve occupied with holistic goodness. As I saw why my husband responded the way he did, I forgave him; I let it go, expressing sorrow that he was so bound up by what had happened to him that he couldn’t respond to my pain. I forgave my mother-in-law, releasing her into the great compassion of God. I forgave my parents and their parents for their part in forming toxic core beliefs. They did the best they could at the time. I imagined the knot that was in my neck was being undone as I examined the narratives of belief I had constructed that were all tied up with my pain. As I did, more distant pain referral sites in my shoulder and head became looser. Pain dissipated. I felt unbound, free in mind, body, and spirit. In the days and weeks that followed, I was aware of how often I clench the muscles in my whole right upper quadrant, as though my efforts will secure me against pain, when, in fact, they cause more. And I’m able to graciously laugh at myself and release my toxic beliefs once again by relaxing the muscles I simply could not by myself before.
So I invite you into deeper work with your pain by getting in touch with the stories you tell yourself around your pain and its deep meanings that you’ve embodied. Look at yourself through the eyes of divine compassion and see what healing revelations emerge as you forgive and unbind yourself from all the harmful messages you’ve embodied around your pain.
Teresa Eisenlohr is a Christian theologian, Presbyterian pastor, and licensed massage therapist. And, no, that's not the start of a joke.