Says Who??

Verstehen, through shared perspectives




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.
















hands, heart

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In the mid-1970’s, psychology professor Philip Zimbardo conducted an experiment now remembered as “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” He created a mock prison unit in the basement of the psychology building, where he then placed the young college-age men he had recruited and vetted for his experiment. Some became prison guards, others became prisoners. On the day the experiment began, the prisoners were taken in handcuffs from their middle-class homes in nice, middle-class neighborhoods, placed in real police cars by real policemen, and taken to the site of the mock prison. There, they were treated like inmates in real prisons. The experiment, intended to go on for much longer, was stopped within a week. The entire experiment was filmed, and you can watch—hour by hour, day by day—as experimental prison guards became ever more aggressive, punitive, and angry reactionaries to any signs of rebellion by the “prisoners.” The prisoners, on the other hand, also very quickly lost their self-esteem along with any sense of merely being part of an experiment. Their sullen responses, their fear of the guards, their futile efforts to bring about any recognition of their humanity soon resulted in severe mental trauma for some of the men, at least one of whom had to be released after a short period in prison because of his deteriorating mental status.
Some critics of the experiment called it a failed experiment, partly because Zimbardo’s own ongoing participation in the experiment affected some of the outcomes. It was a period in academic history during which we saw several such experiments, including Stanley Milgram’s famous work showing how human beings can be made to repeatedly perpetrate atrocities on their fellow humans, simply because an authority figure told them to do so. One good outcome after these experiments became public was the creation or strengthening of Institutional Review Boards that would determine whether human research posed any threat to the lives of those being studied. Zimbardo and Milgram each proved something through their research, however, that we should have learned from World War II and Adolf Hitler.
For me, and for many others that I have had the privilege of knowing, the lesson was this: When we lack, or ignore, our own internal authority to do right, or to survive (i.e. Viktor Frankl, in Man’s Search for Meaning) when under oppression, our humanity deteriorates. Or, as I had often said in South Africa before freedom, “when we dehumanize another human being, we dehumanize ourselves even more.” I watched it happen.
I also watched people like Archbishop Tutu and Nelson Mandela listen to their internal authority, and remain men of great integrity and power. It was not only the famous who were able to do this, either. I knew many, many people who survived apartheid South Africa with integrity, as well as others who died because of it and whose names may never be known to us. The point I am trying to make is that we are never helpless to maintain our essential wholeness and dignity so long as we have developed it in the first place, and so long as we recognize and dignify the humanity in others–Regardless of who they are, and of where you meet them.
The Zulu people of South Africa greet one another by saying Sawubona, which is literally translated “I see you.” The full meaning of that phrase is to say “I see you, and I recognize that you are another human being, just as I am.”
I think back to a time when I was the nurse in the county jail in a city in South Carolina. It was a difficult period in my life when I had turned my back on the church (after it had turned its back on me, by the way) and was simply trying to live by my own standards and ethics. I was in the nurse’s office when several trustys came in, laughing about a preacher who had just spent some time presenting a sermon to the prisoners. As I recall, their source of amusement was his inability to recognize that he had no idea of the lives of the people he was trying to reach. One of the men turned to me and said “We know that you are a true Christian, though, don’t worry.” My immediate thought was “then you know more than I do,” but I merely stuttered “W-why?” “Because,” another replied, “you always treat us like human beings.”
Now let’s return to the Prison Experiment and the reason I am writing all of this. I am compelled to wonder why (just as I wondered when I worked in the prison) we cut funds for education, and build more prisons. The sociologist Emile Durheim supplies the answer to that question: Everything in a society has a purpose, he says, “even criminals.” That purpose? To supply jobs for law enforcement authority, guards, cops, and especially for lawyers. And incidentally, to provide us with a bad example to use to teach our kids the right thing to do.
With all due respect to Professor Durkheim, I believe that spending money on education has a far greater potential for improving our society than does putting thousands of people and billions of taxpayer dollars into what we already know is a “failed experiment.” Prisons make better criminals, not better citizens. And as we saw in the experiment, keeping in mind that these young men started out as normal, middle class people in good families, even being a prison guard diminishes the humanity of the guard.
We are the only advanced country in the world to rely on a prison term as a deterrent to nonviolent crime, to the extent that we do rely on it. And we continue to rely on it, despite all the evidence that it does not work. And still, we continue to cut education budgets, close schools, and force good educators to resort to rote learning tactics in order to keep their schools open and their paychecks coming.

“Those who can only memorize the world as it is, are incapable of changing it.”

This is also part of the problem. If people are to develop and grow their internal authority and make the world safer and a more pleasant place to live, they first need to be taught. And when they do stray from what is right, they could be placed in recovery programs, similar to the more successful addiction recovery programs. There they could be retrained, if necessary. They would make amends and restore or repair their wrongdoing as much as possible. If treated as human beings, they could learn to help their communities by serving others who are in need, and to rejoin the world as better human beings, not better criminals. This would be a much more sustainable use of tax money, as well as the time spent by those who ran the programs. I believe – no, I KNOW – that this would make us a better community, and eventually a better nation.