VCU Menorah Review
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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2006
Number 64
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Author’s Reflections

Living through Pain: Psalms and the Search for Wholeness
Waco, TX: Baylor University Press.

by Kristin M. Swenson

I do not look like someone suffering from chronic pain. Naturally, people ask, “Why pain? Whatever made you interested in this topic?” Truth is, several things contributed to my interest in pursuing the project that became Living through Pain: Psalms and the Search for Wholeness. Pain is universal, yet peculiarly personal. Furthermore, pain underscores the intrinsic wholeness of a person as its effects blur the boundaries between physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and social. In the process, pain presses people to ask questions of meaning; to interpret, to try to make sense of, their suffering. Biblical texts are of special interest to me, and I am struck by the enduring power of the psalms. The psalms are universal, yet peculiarly personal; they speak out of the systemic effects of human experience, including pain, and they model the process of a search for meaning. Consequently, I set out to discover how the psalmists tell their pain, wrestle with it, seek meaning, and how/where they find relief. By listening to these ancient voices telling a timeless experience, I hope to offer something not only of biblical scholarship but also to people searching for health/wholeness — their own and/or those for whom they care.

The Bible interprets suffering in a variety of ways, yet the interpretation that comes first to mind for most people is that pain is the deserved punishment for wrongdoing. While this is indeed well represented within biblical texts, it is not the only way that an individual or group’s pain is understood. Jeremiah’s great suffering is due precisely to his love for the community and work as a prophet of integrity; Isaiah describes an unnamed individual or group whose undeserved suffering relieves others; Job’s enduring pain is the product of a wager that the satan makes with God.

Within the collection of psalms we find a variety of interpretations for pain. Although pain presses people to seek meaning, sometimes the answers can get in the way of healing. The psalmists express this search for meaning, and some suggest reasons/answers for their pain. However, those reasons and answers are not the final word. Each psalm moves and changes, frequently altering one proposed reason for pain in light of a different reason. Sometimes the psalmists set aside the quest for meaning, focusing instead on the greater community/world and the psalmist’s place in it. The psalms, then, model the process of interpreting pain without proposing a final answer. Some suggest that while the search itself may be important to healing, finding meaning may not be.

The psalms also express the systemic quality of pain. Pain does not affect only a person’s physical body but also his or her mind, spirit, and interpersonal relationships. To live fully while dealing with chronic pain requires candid recognition of pain’s systemic effects. Such candor facilitates the process of integrating all aspects of a person into the whole of a life. That is, it aids the process of healing. The psalmists speak out of this whole person nature of pain in a manner that is sometimes disturbingly frank. Listening to the ways in which ancient people whose voices are immortalized with authority in the Bible speak out of pain may help people today candidly note and express the way in which pain affects them on all levels.

The psalms are authentically human. They are people’s voices — spoken, sung, cried — out of the range of human experience. The healing which is the integration of a person in his or her very real present context does not follow a tidy step-by-step process. Neither do the psalms present a linear system or one-size-fits-all theology for understanding and dealing with pain. Rather, they model a process, the dynamic nature of pain and of healing. Listening to them, people in pain today and those who care for them may find a manner of expression that aids them in the process of healing. Pain tends to isolate. At the least, listening to these psalms may make a sufferer feel less alone.

I was surprised by several things in the course of reading the psalms spoken out of pain. One is the role of the psalmist’s community in informing his or her experience of pain. Other people influence the sufferer for good and for ill. Some psalms tell of a longing for company, as though simply the presence of others can mitigate one’s pain. Some suggest that other people are actually the cause of the psalmist’s pain. In these psalms we may find not only anger but also demand for God’s vengeance. I take some time in the book to account for the place of such feelings and the role that these vitriolic expressions can play. Some psalms tell of how people exacerbate pain by blaming the sufferer for his or her condition. The logic goes: surely the one in pain has done something wrong or is simply faithless and deserves the pain he or she suffers. In some psalms it seems that the speaker finds some relief by virtue of finding that his or her experience of pain grants something of value to the greater community. That is, by wrestling with pain, the psalmist is uniquely situated to offer something of great value to the community. Finally, some psalms simply turn from complaint, weariness, and grief to focus on others. In that turning and change of focus, they brighten and lighten.

This dynamic quality was another thing that surprised me. The psalms turn, change, and move. While the psalmist may begin with expression of a particular condition, his or her understanding of that condition, feelings, and focus change throughout the psalm. Pain changes, just as we do. The dynamism within psalms strikes me as profoundly honest. Again, there are no answers, no expressions of having “arrived.” Instead, the process is itself the end. The expressions of anger, grief, loneliness, hope, and awe in a world bigger than any person are themselves healing.

Healing is different from curing. To be cured is to return to a former state of being. Healing, on the other hand, happens in any and all acts of making whole — mind, body and spirit — fully integrated socially and in the present. It is possible to cure without healing, and to heal without curing. Pain changes a person. Healing acknowledges this reality and does not pretend that things can be just like they were before. Healing requires the courage to be honest about the real presence of a condition that no one wants. Yet that honesty is critical to the integration of experience into a whole life. It is part of the process of living, not merely surviving.

With the title Living through Pain, I hope to communicate this possibility of being fully and wholly alive even in the context of enduring pain. Such vitality makes a place for expressions of anger, grief and even despair within the dynamic of experience. Narrative, telling one’s experience, can help piece such feelings together in light of a person’s intrinsic wholeness — body, mind, spirit — and in community with others. Narrative, aided by listening to other voices out of and through pain, can help move a person to the integration of self and experience that is itself healing. Further, “living” suggests active participation. In that way, it allows for the possibility that a person in great pain nevertheless can contribute to the greater community. In some cases, such a person’s contributions may be of special value precisely because they emerge from a context of suffering.

The subtitle, Psalms and the Search for Wholeness, suggests that the psalms model a process, an ongoing search. Reading them does not magically transport a person beyond his or her pain. Neither do the psalms lay out a recipe or prescription for treating pain. Furthermore, they do not suggest that if a person prays hard enough, God will cure. Instead, they witness to different aspects of the experience of pain and tell thoughts and reactions to that experience. In the telling and the dynamism, they invite readers to search with them for an integration of self — body, mind, spirit, and community — into a whole, holy, healed.

I conclude the book with a metaphor that Rachel Naomi Remen uses to illustrate the wonderful possibilities for living through tough circumstances. Because an oyster’s body is soft and delicate, it needs the protection of a hard shell. However, in order to live — in order to breathe, the oyster has to open its shell just a bit. Sometimes, a grain of sand gets inside and causes the oyster irritation and distress. Without changing its soft quality, the oyster responds by slowly and steadily wrapping it in translucent layers, creating a pearl, beautiful and valuable, in the place of great pain. With Living through Pain: Psalms and the Search for Wholeness, I hope to show how the response of psalmists to their pain may enable readers and hearers to find ways to wrap their own experiences of pain into a life made richer not because of the pain itself but in the process of our response to it.

Kristin M. Swenson is a professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and a contributing editor.

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