I watched this PBS NOVA episode called “Iceman: Reborn.”recently; it explores the life of a 5,300 year old man found buried in ice in the Italian Alps in 1991. Researchers found 61 tattoos on his body – 61! The tattoos are mostly straight lines in different configurations and patterns. They are grouped in specific areas on his body; in areas he was experiencing a lot of pain.
Researchers think Ötzi suffered from a whole host of painful, chronic conditions. Like arthritis in his wrists, knees, feet, and spine. They think the tattoos were a kind of ancient acupuncture as they were in areas acupuncture targets for inflammation in the joints and seem to be more strategic than decorative. Looking at the tattoos all over his body, its pretty apparent that this guy must have been in a lot of pain! But, he was always on the move. Hunting, maybe trading. Climbing mountains.
I think about this man, who lived over five millennia ago, who felt the same kind of pain I do, in the same places. I think about him climbing mountains. I bet he felt pain every day. Every day I feel pain, too. I think about him walking the mountains as I slowly descend and ascend the stairs to my 2nd floor apartment, wondering how he managed through it. Years ago I might have judged myself saying something like, he climbed mountains, you struggle with stairs. But I’ve learned since then that pain is pain. And the best way to heal is through compassion. Something that made me smile was that they found him with a kind of mushroom we now know helps with inflammation but wasn’t something we thought humans that long ago understood. We tend to put what we think people before us knew and understood in a limited place of understanding. That seems to be a box we are continually breaking down and in the process of reshaping our understandings, re-creating. I hope as we are continually reshaping what we see before us, whether it’s before us in the present or rethinking the past, we always leave space to expand our perspective.
But, because of my limitations, I’ve also been given some unique opportunities to slow down. To schedule less. To be present right now. To plan each day in the moment, based on how I feel and what I can do now. Walking and moving slowly also gives me pause to think. As I move. About many things. About Icemen and mountains and the resiliency of the human spirit – through pain. Walking up the stairs yesterday I thought, Ötzi had to keep moving.
Arthritis is interesting; it forces you to live in between the ashes and the flame of motion. You have to move; enough to keep the pain from rooting in your bones and joints like cement but not so much that the you catch fire and become inflamed.
Ötzi moved out of necessity. And so do I. I am strategic and judicious in how I move. I am limited not only in how I move but how often I move. For a few months I was pretty scared I would trip and fall on my hands. My wrists are quite inflamed much of the time and so it’s hard to bend them and very painful when I try to bear any significant weight with them.
This isn’t the first experience I have with chronic pain that hurt like hell. Before the arthritis/lupus/mixed connective tissue pain I felt pain. Deeper pain. Deeper than my bones. Subcutaneous pain. Internal. Heart pain. Head pain. Soul-wrenching, falls of the spirit pain.
I feel like my whole life, I have been falling. But not falling down, falling through and I think eventually, up.
It started when I was very young. Each time someone used my body for their own means, I felt pain in my body but most importantly, I felt it in my heart. Sexual abuse is a spiritual assault as much as, if not more, than a physical assault. It’s a stab to your heart, a penetration in the place you grow love. From wounds to the place from which we birth human life. The place from which my son emerged into this life.
That pain and how I learned to live with it, work through it, is the origin of this pain I’m feeling now. Today, it is just closer to the surface. Which is a good thing. A good sign. Despite the pain. The pain is service of something greater. Wellness. Pain working its way out.
It started as heart pain, spirit pain. Healing the heart and the spirit requires compassionate listening, and sometimes gentle therapy. Always love. It took me a while to get to the bottom of the pain in my heart and invite love in. You can try to do heal the heart by pushing through or with what many call mental strength but when you aren’t actually healing the heart. You are finding band aids.
Many people tell themselves to heal. Many people treat healing as a strategic and annoying exercise. How can I maximize healing while minimizing effort and discomfort? You can’t do this with the heart and that approach will only heal the surface. It won’t get you to the depths of pain from abuse, trauma or loss. And those kinds of pain, after they are inflicted, live in the heart. To heal the heart you have to listen first and thoroughly, however painful. And even though painful, it is a truly beautiful experience to heal the heart. Healing the heart, although painful, can bring so much joy.
Healing my heart and spirit became an urgent endeavor at a young age. I began fantasizing about suicide by the time I was five; by the time I was ten, it was dangerous. I’ve spoken to many people who don’t believe children can be suicidal at all. I think they imagine all children to be in a blissful state of ignorance. And many are but I wasn’t. Ever really. One of the things I had to heal my heart from was loss. The loss of my childhood. When you are forced into very adult situations as a child with no control over what is done to you or your body, you lose any idea that life is blissful and you work fast to become as least ignorant as you can.
There are many painful things about being forced to heal from pain at a young age but there are many good things, too. And, if I didn’t do that work then, I’m not sure I could handle the intensity and frequency of the pain I’m feeling now without falling into a deep depression. I struggle some days emotionally because I am in so much pain and so tired, but those feelings pass. Because I’ve been working on matters of the heart for over 25 years. And I’m grateful for that. Not for the abuse, but for who I’ve become in response to the abuse and how that training in listening and working with my heart has prepared me to deal with how my body is in pain today.
I was talking to a co-worker last week about having rheumatoid arthritis.
After saying, “The good thing about arthritis is that it’s often worse in the morning and gets better as the day goes on.” He looked at me and said, “I didn’t know there was a good thing about arthritis!”
I laughed at that thinking, but there are.
There are good things about everything. And I think that’s one of the great challenges in life. To see the suffering, to feel the pain -in ourselves or others - but, in the same hand, hold the light. Feel love.
I know there are many, many other people, now adults and children who feel pain. In their hearts. In their heads. In their bodies. In their spirits. We are all healing in some way shape or form. There are people walking around who have reached a place of existence where they can see and accept the pain but don’t see it or feel it as good or bad. It just is. It doesn’t hinder their ability to experience the joys that exist in each and every present moment. I think seeing and accepting pain in ourselves is a part of the journey to that place. I think it takes lifetimes for most people.
I don’t know what lifetime I’m on but I know I’m on a journey. One step at a time. However slow. And I’m walking the same Earth with the same kinds of pain people have been walking this Earth with for millennia upon millennia.
We are not walking alone. We are not feeling alone. We are also not abusing each other alone. In each opportunity we have to heal ourselves we are also given the opportunity to heal human society. Step by step, with each life. And I think a big part of that is connecting. Through love, through joy and through pain.