Why am I surprised by how easy it still is for me to become lost in myself? You'll forgive me if I explain. If I tell you that I've had unremitting joint pain for five solid weeks, you'll feel sad for me. You'll ask if I'm okay, if I need anything. You won't think, Wow, how self-centered. And yet, self-centered is exactly what I have been.
Pain is a funny thing. It hasn't been intolerable pain. I've had aches. I haven't been able to pull the curtains or open a jar or bend my knees enough to reach the bottom shelf. I've been able to do most everything else, save getting a decent night's sleep. The thing about the pain and the stiffness, though, is that it makes me especially aware of me.
That could be a good thing. Every contemplative teacher there ever was teaches us to become more aware. At first, that was it exactly. It almost felt good. I knew something about living in my body that I usually forget. It was like having worked out with weights and the next day noticing muscles I had forgot I had.
But it got old. And I got scared.
It wasn't normal, this pain. What was it? I decided I had to know. I couldn't rest until I knew, because if I knew what it was, then I'd know what to do, and then I would fix it. Somehow. So I stopped feeling it, stopped just being aware of it, and turned it into my personal Problem to Solve.
I went to the doctor and reported to the lab and watched them draw vial after vial of (as it turns out) perfectly healthful blood. Every one of the ten or more lab tests came back stamped with the same result: Normal, normal, normal. I was not reassured.
Something was wrong, and I had to know, so I turned to Dr. Google for answers. Do you have any idea how many ways different ways there are to Google-search joint pain. If you came and secretly reviewed my internet browser history (and you'd have to do it secretly, because I wouldn't allow it otherwise due to the inevitable mortifying embarrassment I would suffer), you would, doubtless, find dozens and dozens of different queries, each providing its own reinforcing little twist. The truth is out there on the internet, I thought, and I am going to find it. I googled everything but "Chris Sullivan's joint pain." It's a small mark in favor of my sanity that I didn't try.
I could never find what I was really looking for, because it wasn't there. Behind all of that desperate web-surfing, what I really wanted was relief -- not from the joint pain, but from the self-absorption that led me to the keyboard over and over again.
I had turned inward on myself. I wandered into a dark and all-too-familiar room, inside, where I've habituated myself to retreating at times like these. As long as I keep scrabbling in the dark I'm in control and I avoid all the messy feelings that come when I stop and rest in awareness. There I was in firm control of the nothingness -- no feelings, no answers, just groping around alone in the dark, safe, but futile.
Then one day a dear friend said, "How can I pray for you?" In that moment I was caught up short, struck with awareness that it had not once occurred to me to ask for help. I wanted people to know what was going on, but never once had I thought to ask a real-life person for support. I was a little shocked. I thought I didn't do that anymore, withdraw and isolate myself when I was struggling. I was wrong..
Something opened up in that moment. It was this little pinhole of light. I had been so busy looking in that I hadn't once looked out. I remembered that I was not alone, not in the dark, not being expected to solve anything, not in control and not needing to be.
I saw a real doctor today and trusted her to give me pills to make me feel better while we wait. Either the pain will go away as my immune system sweeps away the remnants of some never-to-be-identified, pesky virus, or it'll reemerge when the bottle of prednisone is empty. Then I may be tempted to return, alone, to my dark little room. I'm hoping to remember that what I want isn't there.