For some variety, for the last couple of weeks I’ve changed my running route. Instead of following part of the Emerald Necklace, I’ve been riding the D line out of the city and running back in.
Today after disembarking from the train and starting to warm up, I realized that my heel was still chafing from wearing a sock with a hole in it last Saturday. Every step hurt a little bit, and it was already bleeding. There was nothing I could do about it, so I just started running. In a few minutes the pain was gone.
It got me thinking about an article I’d read recently by William J. Stuntz. Stuntz, who suffers from chronic back pain, made the unusual assertion that hope is painful:
Beginning about eighteen months ago, my doctors turned more pessimistic. I started to hear not “We’ll fix this,” but “You need to learn to live with it.” And a surprising thing happened: I did learn to live with it. I went to work, taught my classes, argued with my colleagues at faculty meetings, even did some writing. Life returned. Then, about two months ago, I had a pair of tests that revealed three surgically correctable problems the doctors hadn’t seen before. Now my surgeons recommend another, more extensive fusion, which (they say) offers some promise of substantial pain relief. Very good news, you might think. But its effect has been anything but good: ever since I’ve heard this diagnosis, the pain level has been sharply higher. Hope hurts. The promise of better days has, for me, brought a large measure of agony to these days.
That story initially struck me as strange, but Iím told it is fairly common. Those of us who live with chronic pain develop skills for coping with it, just as (Iím guessing here) those who are blind learn to listen better than the rest of us.
. . .
Now we are in a position to see why hope hurts. If the pain must always be with me, if the doctors can do nothing for me, then for me, health no longer exists. I barely remember what it felt like to awaken, stand, and stretch with no consciousness of my lower back. That world ended; this is my world now. And if I can shut out the world of long walks and tennis games, if I can make it vanish, a large fraction of my pain vanishes with it. One cannot feel the absence of a nonexistent thing. Let the thing become real again, and its absence stings.
Of course, it doesn’t work perfectly. Even in my most pessimistic moods, I canít make the pain disappear altogether. But the tendency is surprisingly strong. Hopelessness is a very good pain-management strategy. Norman Vincent Peale had it all wrong: pessimism is power. And that truth applies to a great deal more than the lumbar region of the spine.
For Christians, hope is tied up with heaven: the place where all tears are dried, where mourning is no more, where pain cannot enter. Everlasting joy: who would not long for that? Ah, but everlasting joy is then, and pain is now. And the greater the joy ó the bigger the gap between life as it will one day be lived in Aslan’s Country and life in the here and now ó the worse the pain. If pain really is a lack of health, a momentís contemplation of heaven reveals that I am a great deal sicker than my doctors believe. Even a brief thought of life in the Fatherís presence shines a light on the empty spaces in this life, on the terrible lacks that characterize life in this often-terrible world.
For Christians, the more we dull our vision of the hope that is in Christ, the less our current pain, and the more readily we accept the status quo. But in doing so we’re accepting a sickness in place of true health. We’ve given up our desire to make things better. That’s one reason I think the common criticism of Christians along these lines is misplaced (emphasis added):
The great conflict of the 21st century may be between the West and terrorism. But terrorism is a tactic, not a belief. The underlying battle will be between modern civilization and anti-modernist fanatics; between those who believe in the primacy of the individual and those who believe that human beings owe blind allegiance to a higher authority; between those who give priority to life in this world and those who believe that human life is no more than preparation for an existence beyond life; between those who believe that truth is revealed solely through scripture and religious dogma, and those who rely primarily on science, reason, and logic. Terrorism will disrupt and destroy lives. But terrorism is not the only danger we face.
Let’s overlook for the moment Robert Reich’s false dichotomies (e.g. “between those who believe that truth is revealed solely through scripture and religious dogma, and those who rely primarily on science, reason, and logic”). What about his accusation that Christians are too other-worldly?
There’s some truth to it: if we’re placing our hope in the right place, we don’t have too much stock in the present world. But I think Reich errs in what he sees as the implications of those beliefs. The Christian hope is about redemption, not withdrawal. That’s why so many of the last century’s social reforms were rooted in Christian beliefs. With the right view of hope, Christians can better see the problems of the world. And their answer (unlike the terrorists Reich uses as a foil) is not to destroy culture but to work (with spiritual help) for its renewal.
Reich seems to be revisiting William James’ contrast between the “twice-born” and the “healthy-minded.” Unlike James, Reich clearly comes down on the side of the healthy-minded. But part of James’ argument is that the “twice-born” view is more comprehensive and the “healthy-minded,” naive. Perhaps we can extend the same charge to those who push away hope in their attempt to call present sickness the best of health.