Stretching Toward Joy While Living with Pain

Jan 7, 2014

“I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days.” Deuteronomy 30:19-20 NRSV

 A casual photo taken at a gathering of friends before Christmas sent a wave of shock through my soul, not unlike the physical pain that coursed through my spine when I broke my back while horseback a few years ago.

They say a picture speaks a thousand words, but this photo spoke only one—kyphosis. A word, which has entered my vocabulary only recently, meaning an excessive outward curvature of the spine, causing a hunching of the back. Although multiple causes lead to this condition, in my case, it was only one.

Ankylosing spondylitis. A deforming inflammatory arthritis of the spine diagnosed almost 20 years ago is taking a toll that I can no longer hide.

Images of Igor, the hunchbacked assistant to the mad scientist in Frankenstein, flash across my mind. I wince at memories of the cinematic portrayals of such an ugly creature.

Grieving yet another loss this past holiday season, I sought comfort in the pages of a book—Emilie Griffin’s Green Leaves for Later Years: The Spiritual Path of Wisdom. In it, she poses the question, “Can we find our happiness by stretching toward it?”

These words hold special meaning for me, because I know that the author lives with rheumatoid arthritis, a different type of inflammatory arthritis, one that I have as well. I am certain she has wrestled this question to the ground, which is what I am attempting to do this year as well.

“The depths of the . . . arthritis experience are both spiritual and physical,” she continues.

And so it is.

Stretching Toward Happiness

She points to the painter Pierre August Renoir (1841-1919) who also lived with inflammatory arthritis. The famed painter wrote, “I believe I am nearer to God by being humble before his splendor; by accepting the role I have been given to play in life; by honoring this majesty without self-interest, and above all, without asking for anything, being confident that He who has created everything has forgotten nothing.” These words, captured by Renoir’s son Jean, appear in his memoir Renoir, My Father.

To his dying breath, Renoir maintained his love of beauty, choosing to honor His Creator through the work of his deformed, claw-like hands.

The story is told of Henri Matisse paying Renoir a visit on day, and hearing Renoir cry out I’m pain with each brushstroke, he said, “Master, you have already created a vast and important body of work, why continue torturing yourself in this way.”

“Very simple,” Renoir said. “Beauty remains, but pain passes.”

Everything Beautiful in Its Time

Yes, “He has made everything beautiful in its time (Ecclesiastes 3:11).”

Like Renoir, I must open my eyes to see each day’s beauty as it unfolds, even when it is cast against the canvas of deformity and pain. The beauty seems to shine more brightly against the darkness.

Despite my physical capacity, which ebbs away with the ticking of the clock, the landscape of my inner world extends farther than it ever has before. Books read. Conversations shared. People loved.

Join me this year as I mine treasures from the darkness and stretch toward joy while living with the mystery of suffering.