Living With Chronic Pain

It’s been months since AAR/SBL, and I now realize that for me the most influential session was Michelle M. Lelwica‘s paper on chronic pain. As professor of religion at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, she had given her paper a suitably scholarly title: When the Body Hurts: A Critical Analysis of Popular Discourses on Chronic Pain. But for me, her paper was more than an example of excellent scholarship. I realize since then that it’s changed my thinking as a pastor about what it means for people to live with chronic pain, and has prepared me personally if I should ever experience it myself.

Below are my notes which were taken in a hurry as the paper was being read. Most of the words are directly from the paper, although perhaps not as accurately recorded as the parts that appear in quotation marks.

This paper explores:

  • “the commercial, philosophical, and theological ideals of the body as they relate to chronic pain”
  • “an alternative to see chronic pain as an opportunity for self-examination and cultural critique”

Chronic Pain for Dummies and other popular resources tend to use combat language to describe pain, e.g., “conquering pain as an enemy.” This combat approach ignores the definition of chronic pain as pain that is ongoing, that you can’t get rid of. One variation is the “freedom motif” that describes pain as a prison, “an obstacle that prevents one from living life to the fullest, that speaks of power over pain.”

These views are very much related to our culture that:

  • Idealizes some bodies over others
  • Promotes the idea that we can improve and fix our bodies (to achieve a “somatic ideal”)
  • Holds up the perfect, pain-free body as the ideal body

The author points out that this is not an entirely secular view, cf. early Christian leaders who portrayed the resurrected body as pure and without imperfection, a heavenly body.

“Taking charge of your pain,” “getting your life back” and similar language implies that pain can be controlled, so if someone is in chronic pain it somehow becomes their fault.

“Pain is somehow seen as wrong, bad or a sign of failure.”

“All this may well be well-intended, but can also add layers of suffering to someone dealing with chronic pain. Internalizing these messages means judgement and suffering.”

But what if pain was instead viewed as “a resource for self-examination and cultural transformation”:

  • For all bodies that don’t fit in
  • Not romanticizing pain
  • Being present to pain
  • Having an honest encounter of one’s own pain rather than a colonializing attitude
  • What if the sensation of pain is neither good or bad, but the stories we tell about it are more significant?
  • What if relying on others were seen to reveal the myth of independence?
  • What if we let having to slow down/not being able to control chronic pain remind us of the gradual decay we will one day all experience?

“The pain-free perfect body is a body fantasy masquerading as a social norm.”


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5 thoughts on “Living With Chronic Pain

  1. …some good stuff here. I think I would have liked to hear the whole thing. After 25 years of fibromyalgia, and other pain issues, I can appreciate it. For me, there is a balance that I want to rest in, that does not let the pain define me, yet leaves me open to how God can display His power through my weakness. The ultimate pill, cure, or surgery can never be found, but an ultimate God, can make me open to receiving, and giving his grace, in ways that I couldn’t before the days of chronic pain. Yes, that pain free, perfect body IS a fantasy this side of eternity. It can be so easy to live under false guilt for not ‘achieving’ the perfect body.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Gwen, I think you would have appreciated the whole paper. Plus you make some excellent points of your own. I especially love your reminder that we have an ultimate God, so we can rest in a way that we’re not defined by pain and can remain open for God to work even through our weakness.

    1. Yes, it’s quite a shift from the contemporary western ideal of the perfect, pain-free life, and from the combat imagery of conquering pain. It reminds me of Marva Dawn’s book, Being Well When We’re Ill, which is also excellent.

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