Music of the Week — November 25, 2007
The Intolerable Story

Sunday Night Journal — November 25, 2007

My Head Hurts

I really don’t feel like thinking very hard about anything tonight, so I thought I’d tell you about my headache.

It’s a sort of quasi- or semi-migraine that I get sometimes. It was present when I woke up this morning and nothing I could have done would have made it go away until four or five in the afternoon; this is the way it always works. Now, around nine, the pain is mostly gone, but I still feel vague and shaky. I know of a few things that can bring this on—certain foods eaten late in the evening, for instance—but sometimes the cause is not clear. When I’m going to have one I usually wake up sometime around three or four in the morning knowing that it’s coming. Sometimes taking three aspirin then will quell it, sometimes not: last night, not.

I’ve known people who have real migraines, and this isn’t as bad as some of those. I had a co-worker once who could get them at any time and if he felt one coming on during the work day he had to call his wife to drive him home. I can function with mine, more or less. But I’d much rather not. It’s not just the headache itself—there’s an overall feeling of weakness and sickness and a curious sensation of being somehow out of touch with everything, including my own body. It hurts to use my eyes. It hurts to use my mind (and I wonder what the mechanism of that is? what goes on in the brain that causes thinking to produce physical pain?).

So I puttered around this morning, feeding animals, eating breakfast, reading part of the newspaper (including, masochistically, the account of last night’s wretched Alabama-Auburn game). Then I spent several hours on the couch, occasionally reading a bit until my head hurt too much, attempting to read again when I got too bored, occasionally drifting into a half-sleep.

There was one useful thing I could do, though, one that’s always available in any unpleasant situation as long as at least a little consciousness and will remain: I could offer my bit of pain to God, in reparation for my own sins and on behalf of all those I love.

Although there is plenty of warrant for this form of prayer in the New Testament, it’s very much a Catholic thing that most Protestants don’t go in for (I don’t know about the Orthodox). I suppose it sounds too much like salvation by works for traditional Protestants, and just sort of weird and primitive to liberal Protestants. Which is unfortunate, because even on the most pragmatic grounds it’s a very useful practice: one isn’t generally allowed to see what effect it may have in the lives of those for whom one prays, but it benefits immediately the one who prays.

You have to willfully ignore human psychology in order not to see that the need for purpose, in small things and great, ranks below only the most fundamental requirements of the body in importance. We instinctively despise meaningless activity, even if it isn’t painful. Meaningless and severe suffering is almost intolerable to contemplate, much less to experience. But to make any pain or unhappiness or discomfort something offered to God as a prayer gives it a purpose that instantly makes it much easier to bear.

This is one of many instances in which Catholic belief, which seems at first glance the most difficult to accept, full of doctrines which seem to fly in the face of everyday practical sense and to be in opposition to much of what we want, is surprisingly well fitted to the deepest structure of the human psyche. It doesn’t offer a simple or easy intellectual resolution of the problem of suffering, or promise to put an end to it in this life. But it gives us a way to turn it into an act of love. I hope that if the time ever comes that I must suffer in earnest, I’ll have the will and the ability to use this gift.



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A look at things from other people's ideas, the activity of mind to know other people who never have to worry for their future.

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