When It Hurts

I get migraines. Fortunately, for now they are rare. That will change, says my friend with no hint of sympathy (Hers last for a week and can only be pre-empted with daily medication). I find myself awake now at 4 a.m. by a vague sense of pain behind my right eye. It’s no beautiful thing to be woken at 4 a.m. let alone to realize that the little man who must be trapped in my brain has taken up his ice pick and is again trying to escape through my eyeball. I go first to the kitchen and down a glass of water to prepare my stomach for what I am about to send it: Excedrin migraine tablets. The label’s strict instructions prohibit no more than two in a 24-hour period. But the little man scarcely notices four let alone two, so down they go and I slink back to my bed and wait.

It’s in this period of waiting for the medicine to work, for the pain to disappear, that I have some interesting conversations with God. I talk to Him about the problem of suffering. About why, if He loves me so much, He would be content to sit in heaven and let me endure the little man and his ice pick. In these moments, I am not raging against the dying of the light. I usually don’t consider the broader existential questions of global human misery–slave trafficking, the Holocaust, orthodontia. Physical pain is much too self-obsessed for that. I limit my questions to my immediate concern—God, why don’t you make it better?

This headache’s not so bad—I can at least see clearly and the pain, in contrast to others I’ve had, is quite mild. But always, when the big ones hit, when I’m a hostage on the bathroom floor, with all lights extinguished and all sound muffled, I plead with God to take it away. The amazing thing is, each time I ask, for a few seconds, it’s as if the pain does go away—relief! And then it returns, the same as before. What happens in those seconds fascinates me. What mental powers or processes of chemicals or imposition of my human body could cause that mysterious reprieve? What combination of forces produces such a result? I wish someone would study it, but ever since I noticed this phenomenon it has caused me to question how I relate to God.

Is prayer simply an application of our own will—an exercise that allows us to produce for ourselves a mysterious, if only fleeting release from pain? Is prayer simply a tool for self-improvement like journaling or yoga? In those interminable hours, prostrate on the linoleum, I sometimes think so—and that is very often the case when my prayers don’t seem to be answered. It must all be a scam, I think. In the midst of my helplessness I medicate my confusion with doubt. Why doesn’t He heal me? Maybe He doesn’t care. He probably doesn’t even exist.

It’s all very well for me to explain to unbelieving friends when they ask why any God would allow suffering, that we simply live in a fallen world and that someday God will get rid of it—until my smug Sunday school answer is tested in the dry heat of affliction. Then I am forced to draw deep on the reservoir of faith and very often I am scraping the bottom long before I can pick myself up off the floor. Which is why in these moments, I need to draw not on my reservoir, but His.

Even as I write this I am aware at how close I am coming to some kind of trite summation—a pleasant thought, both tidy and respectably spiritual, unassailable in its abstractness. Perhaps that is precisely what these times of testing are ridding us of—our tendency to tie the loose ends of tragedy or pain with pat answers we don’t really believe. Down there, on the bathroom floor I am being taught how to divorce what I feel from what I know is true. It hurts.

[Andrew is, for the moment, migraine free. He is a wannabe filmmaker, working as a sculptor’s assistant in Tucson, Ariz.]

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