13 April 2009

Walking through Suffering

This morning I woke in misery. About once a month, I am visited by a motley crew of symptoms: a sinus headache and pressure, severe fatigue, and intermittent nausea and gagging impulses. There is no medicinal clue for this, as far as I know. Although sleep is the only escape from the pain, it often aggravates the headache -- which is strange for a sinus headache, but which only occurs during this "visit". The first time this hit me was in August 2006, and I was in bed for a week, lacking the strength to do anything else. It lost strength each time it hit me again, eventually coming lasting about a day and half, on average. Although it can be very weak some days, the period is never pleasant. Its precense today was especially inconvienent, given that I have classes to attend, work in my university's history office, a paper to finish, and six chapters of German to finish reviewing. (I had intended to finish my paper yesterday, but the library was closed for Easter.)

I realized early this morning that doing these things would be difficult. How could I endure aerobics class, for instance, if I couldn't even hold a cup of hot tea without my trembling spilling it on the table? After having breakfast and realizing that I wasn't going to be feeling better anytime soon, I decided to send my teacher an email telling her I wouldn't be there and trembled my way across campus to the university library, where I finished my paper and studied for German. The morning passed, and I felt oh so miserable. By the time 12:30 had arrived and I was leaving the office for lunch, I thought to myself "You know, I think if I found a handgun I wouldn't even wait to write a note!"

At lunch, I sat myself and pondered my situation. I still had so much to do -- how was I going to make it through the day? What I really disliked, beyond the physical pain and "Oh, just shoot me" feelings, was how the suffering had eroded my ability to interact with people. I found myself trying to get irritated or angry at trivial things (like the sound of someone walking behind me). I was also having to deal with feelings of paranoia. People kept staring at me, or so I thought, and I kept going to the rest room to check my zipper to make sure it wasn't open. When I began feeling irritated at two professors quietly talking, I knew I had to do something.

According to The Stoic Life, the Stoics believe that everything that happened to us left an impression upon our consciousness, but that we could "give assent to" or "Deny" those impressions. "Denying" the idea that people were staring at me because my zipper might be open was one thing, but denying my mental suffering was quite another. I knew it could be done, though. As far as I know, there are two types of pain: physical pain, as received through our nervous system, and mental pain. Mental pain, or suffering, can arise from both physical stimuli (a hammer hitting our thumb) or emotional stimuli (the loss of a friend). If suffering is in the mind, then I can deal with it -- disarm it. But how?

After lunch I had planned on walking through town to my local library for my weekly visit. My fatiuge had made me wonder if I shouldn't just go later this week, but I value my books to the point that I decided to stick it out. Leaving the dining hall and trailing behind the two whispering academics who had annoyed me so much, I decided to do something. I decided to sing to myself. "It's a good day...for shinin' your shoes, and it's a good day...for losin' the blues..."

While the song is one of my favorites, the lyrics refused to come to me. I continued walking -- and then tried again. "What did Dela-ware, boys, what did Dela-ware? What did Dela-ware, boys, what did Dela-ware? She wore her brand-new Jersey, she wore her brand-new Jersey, she wore her brand-new Jersey, and that's what Dela wore..."

It didn't seem to be working, and singing tired me. I continued, though, because there was nothing else to do. "Why did Cali-phone ya, why did Cali-phone ya? Why did Cali-phone ya, was she all alone? She called to say how-ah-yah, she called to say how-ah-yah, she called to say (Hawaii) and that's why she did phone!"

I continued singing softly to myself, stopping when I met a friend coming back from the library. We spoke a little and I went on my way, singing "How did Wiscon-sin, boys? She stole a new-brass-key. Too bad that Arkan saw boys, and so did Tenne-see! It made poor Flori die boys, it made poor Flori-die you see, she died in miss-our-i boys, she died in misery!"

And there I was, walking across the park to the library and I was feeling not "good", but...a lot less bad than I had before. The suffering had diminished. Thrilled, I continued humming to myself until I arrived in the library, at which I stopped as they generally frown on such things. I got my books, and noticed that one of them was not what I had expected. A week ago, while searching for "world religions", I found a book called "Embroidered Textiles". Then I was somewhat entranced by the title, thinking to myself that the author was going to look at the rich tapestry of human religious and spiritual experiences and then show to us the patterns hidden within. What a marvelous metaphor! I was quite looking forward to it. Imagine my amusement, then, when I opened the book to find that it was about actual textiles -- blankets, cloaks, and so on. I laughed for a while, and as I did realized that the suffering had diminished even more.

On my walk back through the park, I noticed a tennis ball. I made a sound of glee -- two weeks ago I'd found a similar tennis ball and had for a week kept it on my person for impromptu games of handball. I lost it last Sunday while throwing it against a building and catching it, because it hit a gutter pipe and bounced off at an odd angle into a trench that I couldn't access. And so there I was, walking back home, singing to myself, bouncing the tennis ball against the wet pavement. I had a headache and was still very much tired,but my suffering was gone. I had denied it through my behavior, and now felt strangely energetic and playful. Such is the power of the mind and mental denial.

And here is another thought: were I still in my parents' religion, I probably could have accomplished the same by singing a song of praise. Then, however, I would have interpeted what happened as being the work of God, who rewarded praise for relief from mental anguish. Either there's power in singing gaily, or Perry Como rewards those who keep his memory alive by singing his old songs.

If you want to hear the song I was singing, here it is below.


Chrissey said...

Wow. What an awesome story of mental power! I personally take too much pleasure in my suffering to try to ignore it, but hey, I'm glad you were able to find relief!It's so true--we can make the decision to feel good or bad.

smellincoffee said...

As Abraham Lincoln is quoted, "Most people are as happy as they make up their minds to be." This mental power of ours probably extends to blocking out things we don't want to hear, like those ideas which threaten cherish beliefs. It can be used for our gain or to our detriment, I suspect.