The frequency of my headaches has dropped to one every six weeks or so. (I never say that without giving thanks three times.) For twenty years, they hit every third or fourth day, a twinge at 10 a.m. spreading into a steel net circling my head and tightening slowly, slowly, until it hurt to blink. Sometimes they’d come two or three days in a row lasting ten hours each time, never really going away, ebbing and rising as I skipped dinner and curled up in bed with palms pressed against my temples hoping for any loosening of pain’s grip.
The days that passed without a migraine were shadowed by the dread over the next one to come. Mornings were uncertain. A regular day or another session in bed, lights out and shades drawn and, please, no sound? One week in spring 2011, the headaches hit for six days running. Even the pills that my wife found and that usually made the pain melt after a few hours didn’t work. I had no appetite and couldn’t sleep. Vomiting helped, a euphoric pause for an hour until the vise started squeezing once more. But this episode went on for too long. I landed in the hospital. The nurses slid me into a CAT scan machine with warnings of claustrophobia. When they pulled me out forty minutes later, I asked them to slip me back in. The steroids they prescribed left me queasy and disjointed. I stopped taking them after three days.
It makes you think. When pain’s pangs are sharp, the mind does funny things. You may be at work or strolling outside, driving home or reading a book, and a little zing passes your brow. The food on your plate doesn’t seem so inviting, the idea you wanted to expound not so important. Forget about jogging at 4 or a beer at 5. It’s time to withdraw. Your head soon insists on exclusive attention, and you comply. The world wanes as the pain seizes your consciousness. Objects grow undifferentiated, just a great “out there.” You don’t care about what happened yesterday or what you must do tomorrow. Torment sweeps them away. Time contracts. Long thoughts and sentences are too arduous to sustain. You end up rocking and chanting, “Please, God, make it stop . . . please, God . . .”
Torture works this way. Interrogators want information, but loyalty and hatred keep the prisoner quiet. He retains a moral sense; he doesn’t want to do the wrong thing. He remembers his commitments and the mission. But reticence doesn’t last. Pain erodes awareness of things outside the room. It’s not that he changes his mind. No, his mind changes. The universe shrinks to the dimensions of the chamber; the mission and all the realities that sustain him fade to meaninglessness. As Elaine Scarry put it in The Body in Pain (1985), “As in dying and death, so in serious pain the claims of the body utterly nullify the claims of the world.” There is no moral element to the prisoner’s confession, no betrayal at work or lies to keep telling, because outer circumstances no longer register. Emily Dickinson:
I like a look of Agony
Because I know it’s true—
Men do not sham Convulsion
Nor simulate, a Throe—
After ten or twelve hours of sleeping off and on through the night, I would climb out of bed drained and jittery, grimly pleased that the demon had gone. I didn’t want to think about it except to say, “Man, you were almost delirious that time.” Had someone said to me, “What are you pleading to God for? You’re an atheist,” I would have laughed. The plea, I thought at the time, only proved my unbelief.
That I would turn to God at a time of extremity was nothing to me but an explanation for why others had faith. It is the anguish of life’s pain that prompts it, not joy in the truth.
I had concluded that people hold to God because they suffer, or are afraid or deprived, or want to be cared for. Take away the hurt, and the will to believe collapses, not to mention those fantastical cries for help. Freud said as much, and I ate him up when I was young. In Civilization and Its Discontents, he attributes transcendence to an infantile wish. The child identifies the mother with food and warmth, the father with strength and protection. The all-knowing, ever-present God who shares our pain and actually cares about what happens to us is a grown-up version of the parents who provide and safeguard. Freud would have considered the fetal position I ended up in a physical enactment of faith’s psychological beginnings.
People who have embraced this psychologistic explanation know how neat and self-evident it seems. It gave me strength, and superiority, too. Believers walk around with their heads in spiritual clouds or smile blandly in naive “animal faith,” while I, clear-sighted and coldhearted, kept hold of the concrete and indubitable facts of life. I saw no reason why chronic migraine should change my perspective. The tumble into pain and away from objects, out of the world and toward God, marks a loss of reality, and that settled the whole question for me. I didn’t see then that there is a great big assumption at the heart of this certainty: What if the things of this world are often the deceivers, and only when we draw back from them are we primed for the truth?
Let me put it this way: What makes us think that the ordinary stuff of perception is more sound than the touch of God reported by saints and felt by millions every day in prayer? I once asked a psychologist who had muttered an irreverent remark, “What about people who sincerely sense the presence of God?” She replied in measured tones, “The mind is capable of many, many things.” No doubt, but by her logic one must treat the experience of the absence of God as just as likely to be a mental construction.
Either way, the cares of daily business can divert you from healthy metaphysical curiosity. Jesus says, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear” (Matt. 6:25). Where preoccupation with earthly goods stops, openness to eternity begins. If nothing curbs our absorption in human affairs, they become positive hindrances to reverence. “For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things” (6:32), Jesus tells the crowd. The kiss that draws Gatsby’s ideals out of the stars and presses them to Daisy’s lips, the glistening 2018 Volvos in the showroom where I am sitting right now, the bills in the kitchen—these easily become false gods.
Pain clears them out. As the tiny muscles around your eyes contract and a giant hand pinches your skull, mundane existence loses its hold. You’re in pain—that, for the moment, is the meaning of life. It extends no further than your body. But now you’re ready to be rescued. For stubborn egos like mine, it can take that much affliction for us to apprehend a beyond. I take it as a consequence of original sin that, in some cases, the bliss of whole-hearted worship comes only at the end of a harrowing experience. Sublunary delights are simply too delightful to pass up; worries all-too-human cling firmly; ambition governs. Pain expels them all.
At one point, a fellow sufferer of migraines advised me to change my attitude. Don’t resist the pain—it’s a communication. The body is trying to tell you something. The essayist and migraine victim Joan Didion realized this: “And once it comes, now that I am wise in its ways, I no longer fight it. I lie down and let it happen. At first every small apprehension is magnified, every anxiety a pounding terror. Then the pain comes, and I concentrate only on that.” When the strain finally lessens, “everything goes with it, all the hidden resentments, all the vain anxieties.” It makes her call the headache a “circuit breaker.”
The message to me was ontological. What has greater being, the clutter on my desk or the word of God? What is more real, the day’s toil or Good Friday two thousand years ago? Pain underlines the answer. That doesn’t make the hurt any less severe, but it does change pain’s meaning and the pained one’s destination. Pope John Paul II wrote in Salvifici Doloris: “Suffering seems to belong to man’s transcendence: it is one of those points in which man is in a certain sense ‘destined’ to go beyond himself, and he is called to this in a mysterious way.”