And a woman said, “Tell us of Pain”

Kahlil Gibran

Kahlil Gibran

Here’s a poem that deals directly with pain, from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet.  I don’t entirely understand it but I’m intrigued by some of its claims:

“And a woman spoke, saying, “Tell us of Pain.”
And he said:
Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.
Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.
And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy;
And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields.
And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.
Much of your pain is self-chosen.
It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self.
Therefore trust the physician, and drink his remedy in silence and tranquility:
For his hand, though heavy and hard, is guided by the tender hand of the Unseen,
And the cup he brings, though it burn your lips, has been fashioned of the clay which the Potter has moistened with His own sacred tears.”

Gibran, of course, may not be talking only about physical pain, but since that’s our focus this week, let’s read the poem with that in mind.  “Much of your pain is self chosen” is an intriguing idea. Novelist Rachel Kranz, whose excellent response to yesterday’s post I recommend, has taught me that our illnesses often can be interpreted as metaphorical expressions of psychological trauma.  (Of course, misfortune that is clearly not your doing doesn’t count unless you believe in kharma or paying for sins in a past life.)  If we interpret our pain accurately, we achieve a deeper self knowledge and learn about the issues we must confront.

I would like to believe, as Gibran advises, that we could approach our pain with wonder and joy, the way we should approach the miracles of daily life.  It seems hard to imagine doing so when one is fighting a headache or experiencing stabbing sinus pains (how my own pain usually manifests).  Yet I heard once that the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, whose sensuous poetry captures his openness to life, supposedly rejected pain medication when he was dying of leukemia. That was so that he could be open to all that life dished out, the painful as well as the pleasurable.  The seasonal changes, as Gibran would put it.

Did he watch the world with serenity in that state?  It’s hard to imagine.

For a counter vision, there is Tom Robbins’ Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates (2000).  I don’t like the book the way I do his earlier works, but I vividly remember a CIA agent trying to use transcendental meditation to cope with the pain of insect attacks and other discomforts while traveling through the Amazon jungle.  After several unsuccessful attempts, he finally opts for the cocaine used by his native guides.

So Romantics and visionaries embrace pain as a breaking of the stone at the heart of the fruit, trusting that new understanding will emerge.  They advise that we drink the bitter cup, perhaps a reference to Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane.  (According to Matthew, the day before his crucifixion, Christ prayed that God would “let this cup pass from me” and then surrendering, acceded to his destiny: “nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.”)  Tranquil acceptance and trust in the “tender hand of the Unseen,”  the Potter who weeps for us, is the recommended response to pain.

But the comic novelist, who focuses on the non-transcendent body, says that pain is a pain and that’s all there is to it.

I wish he were wrong, but it’s easier to disagree when I am feeling well than when I’m suffering.

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  • Rachel Kranz

    A few random thoughts before I go on to treating these topics in NOVEL form! 🙂

    1. A hypnotist/therapist who helped people visualize wellness in various ways, in response to various types of ailments (usually those for which Western medicine had no cure or even treatment) once told me that when she or her patients had the option of just taking a pill or having a simple operation, they usually did it–why go through all the trouble of getting your body to do what you wanted it to, when there was a simple and easier alternative available? I think of that when I have a headache. I always think that the time to work on not having one is before I get it (because over the years, I’ve learned what sets them off & a lot about how to avoid doing that at various stages in the pre-headache process). Once I get it, however, I just want the pain to stop, & I’d happily take anything non-habit forming or with no side effects (which is why I stick to Advil & maintain a VERY strong placebo-based belief that Advil works). For your student, obviously, this is no solution, but for less serious headaches, I like the interplay between practical fixes & growth-oriented spiritual solutions!

    2. With regard to illness “speaking” for us, I really believe it does, & I would say even if you bring in karma, it doesn’t have to be punishment for past sins. It can also be a lesson we couldn’t learn any other way (that seems to be what Julian of Norwich is saying). Whether the lesson has to do with enduring the pain or what it takes to find the cure, I don’t know (certainly with life tragedies, there is no “cure,” and the enduring and the healing are part of the same process). Whether or not that is “true,” it does offer a way of coping with tragedy and pain: what am I supposed to learn from this, or what do I get to learn from this that I couldn’t learn any other way? It’s certainly something I think about a lot as I work on my novel about slavery: Given the implacability of that tragedy, and all the horrific deaths and tortures that were part of it, what do we, its inheritors, learn from it? What can we DO with it? Whether or not we “chose” that history by being born into it, as Americans, what do we make of it, given that we HAVE it?

    3. I have a lot of mistrust of Kahlil Gibran, now that I know he wasn’t the mystic or religious figure that I always thought he was, but “just” a poet. I don’t know what I think about his thoughts on pain. Maybe what I don’t like about them is that they leave out what is irreparable about it. I think what I liked about him as a teenager was the sense that everything could be fixed or put to use somehow, and now, as an adult (finally!), I’m not so sure. The anger at unjust or senseless pain, instead of the serene acceptance of it, seems important–but of course, you can feel anger even at pain that is nobody’s fault or that comes from causes that can’t be changed; in that case, the anger isn’t a spur to “change the world”–so what IS it for? And even if the anger IS a spur to “change the world,” as Brecht (a poet that I do still trust) says,

    Even hatred of oppression
    makes the brow grow stern;
    Even anger against injustice
    makes the voice grow harsh; Alas we
    who wished to lay the foundations of kindness
    Could not ourselves be kind.

    http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/to-posterity/

    I guess what I think (which is the ultimate copout, maybe!) is that both dimensions are always true: sometimes a cigar (or pain!) is just a cigar; but it is also always a language or a lesson. Whether you smoke the cigar (take the headache pill) or focus on the lesson (which you have to do, like Julian and your student, when the pill isn’t available or doesn’t really help) doesn’t really change the dual nature of the pain: both contingent and necessary, both random and meaningful, both physical and spiritual.

    Or IS that the ultimate copout? 🙂 Hopefully I’ll know more when I’ve finished the next section of my novel!


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