Derived from the Greek word epiphaneia, epiphany means “appearance,” or “manifestation.” In literary terms, an epiphany is that moment in the story where a character achieves realization, awareness, or a feeling of knowledge, after which events are seen through the prism of this new light….*
If you have read any of these posts in the past, or followed me on social media sites, the topic of this blog undoubtedly presents as a drastic departure from my usual chronic pain patient advocacy, and even more so from my general political observations. In fact, perhaps it seems too esoteric for a sociologist to even think about, much less write a public blog on the topic. Psychology, chronic pain, and the mind-body connection nevertheless are all familiar territory in pain management literature, and the numbers of really good approaches to these problems are legion. Yet their true value becomes lost in the fog of the inevitable watered-down versions that we end up producing in our collective need to simplify the complex and package it for quick sale. Epiphany, as a necessary element of both healing and evolving human processes, is a concept that while accepted as part of the break-through of successful science as well as of evolving spirituality, is not often explored for its own sake. Whether it becomes part of the pain management lexicon, I can only pray that it does not do so at the cost of its complexity and authenticity.
To be clear, I have had little choice in accepting the reality of epiphany as a healing event. What you will read, if you continue here, is the process that I have experienced, and which I now believe vital to the understanding and proper management of chronic pain (both physical and emotional, which seem to be deeply intertwined). That was definitely not the position I would have taken as recently as a year ago. In fact, this is pretty deep stuff for me to think about, much less write about. I am not trying to drown myself or the reader in the depths of this topic, or in the murky waters of my own, very long, life which has been accompanied all the way by pain in various manifestations. My recent personal epiphany has led me to first accept, then to firmly believe, that the mind-body connection cannot be ruled out as an invaluable—even necessary—prerequisite for understanding the role of chronic pain in the lives of many patients. And that it may necessarily include the experience of an epiphany of some kind.
I believe the psychologist’s role in mending the mind-body connection is vital to wholeness for the chronic pain patient whether the pain is barely managed, or has been controlled “enough to cope.” Does that make sense? I inquired of my favorite pain management physician. “Yes it does,” he promptly replied. But even now as I begin to dive into the narrative explanation of my experience, I strongly resist the idea of any psychological protocol that has been watered down into a one-size-fits-all process for pain management. It would be no more useful than a one-pain-medication protocol would be suitable for every patient. Chronic pain patients are unique individuals worth the time and effort spent, working with the cooperation of the patient, to achieve the wholeness and productivity uniquely suited to that individual—spiritually, emotionally, and physically.
So, getting to the point, an epiphany can be all that we commonly accept as a liminal** moment in time when we stand in the dangerous threshold places that are holy, or liminal. It can also be simply a flash of understanding that may change the way we look at things, or simply allow us to move on in a very this-worldly fashion, without much in the way of miracles to play a part in the proceedings. Or, it may heal a broken spirit and allow normal light to return to a life. This was my recent experience of epiphany.
I would never have called it an epiphany, yet it is due to the wisdom and patience of my psychologist that the spiritual and psychological environment for this very liminal event could ever even have taken place. To clarify, my psychologist is not a pain management therapist, nor is he associated with any pain management group, but I was referred to him because of my pain. Through two years of working together with him on the mind-body connections of my chronic pain, it was becoming more and more clear to me that I often described myself as “who I was” (in survivalist mode) during periods of physical and emotional abuse; and “who I was” after having removed myself from all connections to those times.
During about a decade immediately following the achievement of my freedom, my anger was so deep—almost primal—that I acted on that anger and the cynicism associated with it most of the time. Until I could no longer live like that. From somewhere, I found my survival depended more on having a better understanding of my worth as a human being than to accept that version of the “new me.” The behavior ended, but the anger remained and deepened. And I hated it. And sometimes, myself.
But the anger was also motivating. I went to University in my 40’s, received my PhD, lived in South Africa for seven years, and came back to the States “a different person.” So I described myself, anyway. The anger was still with me, like a two-ton vehicle attached to my back. I thought of it as the vehicle that kept me alive, that got me where I needed to be. But actually, I carried the “vehicle.” And it was heavy, and it caused me a great deal of physical and emotional pain. The pain alone finally nearly destroyed me, and at the age of 72 I finally gave up on life, death seemingly imminent. I had the satisfaction, I thought, of having overcome the person I had been, to achieving something in life that had real meaning to me. I no longer behaved as “that other woman” behaved, but still there was the pain. Still, there was the anger.
Anger at God? Probably, but more like confusion. How could the God I had experienced as a real and positive presence in my life since childhood be the same God that allowed me to be abused and violated, to suffer deep and painful losses right up to that very year I retired—how could that be the same God to Whom I could honestly give the credit for “leading me all the way?” For that matter, how could the person I am now be the person I was then? I would never discuss her, or even think about her if I could help it. That part of my life was more and more a void. I hated who she had BEEN, and felt relieved that I had “left her behind.” Except, of course, for the pain. Except for the anger.
By now, my therapist had earned my complete trust and with deep respect for my privacy, had still managed to elicit some valuable understanding of who I thought I used to be, and why. Then came the day of The Epiphany. I had been listening to “Jesus led me all the way” in the car on the way to the session, and my newfound road to freedom from deep angers was being threatened. My psychologist must have sensed the time had come, because in our subsequent conversation my confusion about how God could have been leading me in those dark, anger-filled years finally made sense. Don’t get me wrong. I made the decisions, and I alone used the anger from previous helplessness to get me through some situations I probably didn’t need to be in, in the first place. I don’t claim God made me suffer, but at that specific moment I saw that He used my suffering, my bitterness, and my losses to lead me to a better place. That was how He led me “all the way.”
Hard on the heels of that epiphany came the certainty that the new understanding being true, every experience, every “version” of who I was at different times of my life, thus were all about the same, ongoing story about the same, greatly blessed (and yes, greatly misused) human being. Paradoxically, the person that I denied as part of myself has shown me how much I need her cooperation in order to continue to follow a purposeful life; how much I need her forgiveness in order to forgive those who hurt me; how much I need her experience of the worst in human beings in order to try to make some sense of the world we live in today and avoid giving up in despair.
I call that a real epiphany. Both the dangerous, liminal kind, and the blessed, healing kind.
In common usage, it has been my understanding that an epiphany is an “Aha!” moment at the very least; more likely a “Eureka!” moment, in which (to borrow from James Joyce) the radiant object becomes a surreal, even a sacred thing (or idea, or experience). In religious terms we might think of Saul of Tarsus being blinded by the Epiphany (of the manifestation of Jesus), after which he, his life and his purpose were completely changed. We think of him bathed in the magnificent presence of the Christ during that moment too radiant for mere mortal eyes to bear. For some, the idea of epiphany embodies that sacredness and is not expected to happen to ordinary folk like you and me.
For most of us, we may think of an epiphany in the terms of “Aha” or “Eureka,” but still as something contained within the ordinary living of our day to day lives. We are not blinded, our lives may shift a bit one way or another, but we continue to use our same names and, while some changes in our lives or lifestyles may occur, we remain essentially who we were. We struggle for hours, even days, with a problem we just can’t get our minds around. Suddenly something clicks in our minds and everything falls into place. The answer is obvious. We have experienced an epiphany, and it was a good thing. It was a positive occurrence, after which we might say “Why did I not see that before?” The implication being that we discovered it ourselves, it was not given by divine intervention, did not occur at a liminal threshhold. Or did it?
And, finally, do I now need to spend time trying to understand the unexplainable, or would it be more useful to incorporate the results of that experience into a life that has achieved continuity, meaning, and potential as a whole tapestry? A tapestry that reveals both beauty and ugliness, both mystery and clear understanding, both light and dark. A tapestry as yet unfinished, in which the ongoing presence of the Weaver may continue His work.
Looking at that tapestry, I can only believe: The Best is Yet to come.
Thanks for listening.
**Liminal: a psychological, neurological, or metaphysical subjective, conscious state of being on the “threshold” of or between two different existential planes, as defined in neurological psychology (a “liminal state”) and in the anthropological theories of ritual. www.askdefine.com
DEDICATED WITH LOVE TO THOSE WHO SHARE THE EXPERIENCE OF
TO THOSE WHO AS FAMILY AND FRIENDS
HAVE WALKED WITH ME IN JOY AND IN PAIN;
JAMES PATRICK MURPHY, MD
DENNIS E. WAGNER, Ed.D,
WHO SEE AND TREAT ME AS AN INDIVIDUAL PATIENT,
WITH THE RIGHT TO MY UNIQUE EXPERIENCE OF PAIN.
AND FINALLY AND FOREVER,
TO HE WHO “LED ME, ALL THE WAY.”