Living Through Pain
Psalms and the Search for Wholeness


From the Introduction

“It’s not such a wide gulf to cross, then, from survival to poetry.” —Barbara Kingsolver

Telling politely curious people that you are working on a project concerning pain can be like pulling the plug on a cozy bath.  Soon you sit there, naked and shivering, in an empty tub.  Pain is hardly an inviting topic; yet I have found that once people get beyond an initial aversion, everybody has something to say about pain, frequently personal, and usually including wonder at the difficulty of pinning it down.  Adding religion to the conversation stimulates the same paradoxical effects of aversion and fascination.  I do not look like someone who is suffering chronic pain, so when people ask me what is the book that I have been working on, their first reaction to my answer frequently is a delayed “what?”  After clarifying that the book concerns pain, “p-a-i-n,” most people ask if it is about “physical pain” or about “pain in general, like psychological or emotional pain.”  My response to this question normally also addresses some part of the next question: Why the Psalms?  In this introduction to Living through Pain, I anticipate that readers share the same kinds of questions, but also come to the book out of their own experiences wrestling with pain.

Consequently, I will briefly speak to those questions here and describe how the chapters that follow address aspects of the experience of pain in its multifaceted, everchanging nature.  However, because the topic of this book concerns two things about which people have a great number of opinions and considerable passion, I begin by telling what the book is not, in an effort to be fair to readers whose assumptions may not immediately be satisfied.  If you are such a reader, I hope that you will suspend judgment long enough to read further.  In the end, I hope that this book will prove useful to those who may be in pain and/or caring for persons in pain, and interesting to those curious about biblical perspectives on pain.  Indeed, I hope that the experience of reading this book will be more like stepping into a steaming hot tub full of interesting people, easing aches and promising thought-provoking and engaging conversation.

As I note in the first chapter, there is a sobering rise in complaints of intractable pain, especially in the “industrialized West,” and particularly in the United States.  This may be because more people report it than they did before, it may be due to changes in lifestyle or perspective, or it may be the product of a combination of things.  Whatever the case, despite increasing pharmacological treatments and medical technology, debilitating pain has gotten out of hand, and it is inseparable from great suffering.  Pain has the capacity to fracture a person, creating gaps between body, mind, and spirit, as well as between the sufferer and others.  That is, it creates distance between the sufferer and his or her life, preventing full participation in the promises, demands, challenges, and potential of any given moment as it happens.  Pain preoccupies, prohibiting full engagement in the present, the only time any one of us really has.  The quest to live through pain is the quest to reintegrate the fractured self into a whole person, fully alive at any given moment, even when that moment includes pain.  It is, in a sense then, to take the suffering out of pain.  To determine one’s integrity, even in the presence of pain, is to make oneself whole, holy, and to heal.  The process of identifying one’s authentic self, in the present moment, wholly cognizant of and engaged in whatever bears on that experience, enables a person to find purpose and place; and sometimes the pain is mitigated, too.

I ask how psalms might aid in that process of reintegration and engagement for several reasons.[1]  One is that I am trained as a biblical scholar, particularly of the Old Testament or “Hebrew Bible.”  But such training is inseparable from my abiding interest in these ancient texts, an interest that has flowered into an awe-filled respect for those involved in the centuries-long process of composing, editing, and compiling what we now have as “Bible.”  Another reason for listening to psalmic voices in considering the shades of pain is that they do not so easily divide a person into body, mind, and spirit.  Neither do they separate an individual’s experience from his or her social relationships.  In other words, each of the psalms begin with the assumption that any person is a complicated product of internal and external relations.  The six psalms that I have chosen to consider closely in light of the matter of pain speak out of both broken and reintegrating conditions, decrying pain’s propensity to fracture, and seeking a means of being whole and engaged in life, even in light or darkness of great pain.

The candor with which the psalmists speak is an equally valuable characteristic of the psalms concerning the experience of pain.  The psalms do not proffer a systematic theology; neither do they identify a diagnosis, prognosis, and course of treatment.  Instead, they demonstrate the very real experience of persons wrestling with different aspects of the experience of pain.  They offer a vocabulary and grammar for understanding and expressing aspects of that experience.  Reading them as we do here is to discover that what may seem to be unbearably unprecedented suffering actually has company and sympathy in a shared human condition.  Listening to these ancient poems may round off the cruel edge of loneliness that pain can bring.

Furthermore, they are considered religious texts-an obvious fact, yes, but remarkable for its implications.  In their candor, these psalms do not mince words, and the result may be offensive to some religiously sensible readers.  The psalmists complain, question, and express both great anger and a sense of betrayal at God as well as other people.  The psalmists challenge a too-easy theology that cannot abide the fact that bad things happen to good people and is scandalized by the questions and responses that such a fact elicits.[2]  The psalmists do not deny, downplay, or dismiss honest reactions to the problem of pain.  They tell them, wrestle with them in conversation with God and others, and they move through them.  That the psalmists do not pontificate on answers to the problem of pain, but rather move through aspects of the experience, dignifies the process itself.  That the psalmists’ difficult words are canonized in sacred texts suggests that such dynamic wrestling has a place, even in a “godly” life.

Finally, yet another reason to consider the psalms in thinking about pain is that they are a part of our cultural atmosphere and landscape.[3]  The Bible is indisputably influential, regardless of one’s religious faith or lack thereof.  Even as it is misunderstood and misused, the Bible permeates the cultural atmosphere of much of the world.  Psalms especially among the books of the Bible exert a powerful influence, representing more than any other biblical book varied and heartfelt responses to a wide range of human experiences.  We do well, then, to examine the psalms for their contribution to the ways in which we understand and seek to manage pain, even when we disagree with or otherwise differ from them.

I am interested in understanding something of the various shapes and textures of pain, what it is and what it does, and in promoting the productive and satisfying life of a whole person, even in the context of pain.  The Bible is not the only voice on pain.  Because pain as a whole person event is a universal human experience, it is an object of interest and concern for every religious tradition.  The first of Buddhism’s “Four Noble Truths,” and the one that drives the others, is that all life involves suffering.  That the word dukha, here translated “suffering,” means more than the pain of injury to include the sense of discontent and impermanence is instructive.  To be whole/healed is to engage fully in one’s present situation, to be alive as body, mind, and spirit in relation to others in the very real and ever changing circumstances of one’s life.

[1] The psalms are individual poetic units/songs within the collection titled Psalms;psalmist is a term denoting the author(s) of a psalm.

[2] Harold S. Kushner’s slim volume, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: Schocken Books, 1981; repr., New York: Avon Books, 1983) wrestles well with these same issues in a manner very much in keeping with the psalms.  Page references are to the 1983 edition.

[3] David Morris composed a book-length study showing how our cultural milieu informs our experience of pain in The Culture of Pain (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).