I could interpret the strange fact that the title of my
sixth-grade science project was "The Control of Chronic Pain," and
that I later developed years of constant pain (felt primarily as a dagger of
criminal nerves behind the left eye), in one of two ways:
1. It's just a coincidence. No connection. There is no real
system of meaning in the universe. After all, I'm hardly unique. More than a
quarter of all Americans experience some form of chronic pain each year, and
about 20 percent of women have migraines or some type of persistent headache, a
term I have used as shorthand to name my particular mystery affliction. For
God's sake, the headache is the most common medical condition plaguing human
beings! And there you have it.
2. You see, the New Agers, much of the alternative medicine and
self-help industry, and all those psychoanalysts are right. All pain has some
meaning. Everything in life happens for a reason, so we can grow. There are no
accidents. The sixth-grade science project was a clear sign from God or Spirit
or the Higher Power of Your Understanding that all along I was meant to
experience these headaches, learn from them, and then teach others to relieve
More specifically, as I interpret this second popular
philosophy, we are each basically nothing more than ageless, continually
reincarnating souls on an eternal mission for enlightenment, seeking to learn
the vital and often painful lessons that our previous selves neglected. Just
before we are born, our invisible spirits, just released from dead people, hover
in the twilight-somewhere between the clouds and heaven-waiting for the next
baby, which will represent their next and most effective learning opportunity.
Then, at the proper moment, like synchronized swimmers lined up on a long series
of diving boards by the pool's edge in a 1930s Busby Berkeley musical, they each
seamlessly dive sideways and gracefully in cascading sequence into their
individually designated earthly human containers.
So, from this perspective, what evidently happened to me was
that on the day I was born, April 9, 1967, my particular soul looked down and
had the foresight, as souls often do, to choose my unassuming bourgeois South
Suburban Chicago human life-form. It knew that, through a series of hapless
errors in judgment and general misfortune, this bipedal hominid would offer the
soul the perfect opportunity to fulfill its particular mission: having a really,
really bad headache.
In its infinite wisdom, the soul recognized that I would grow up
with an anesthesiologist uncle who started one of the earlier chronic pain
clinics in America, in Gary, Indiana--a land mass which is comparable in its
cosmic power significance only to the sacred continental energy-vortex center
underlying the Great Pyramid of Giza, or to that freaky thing in Sedona that
attracts all those tourists. At the age of twelve, a traditional age of
initiation into the world, my uncle would suggest as a topic for my sixth-grade
science project "chronic pain," offering valuable foreshadowing. That
science project would serve as my own personal burning bush, as a platform on
which the Divine could manifest itself on earth and alert me to my purpose.
The soul knew that despite the initially apparent dry nature of
this topic of chronic pain, its mysteries would soon powerfully capture my
imagination. After all, it posed so many more haunting and mesmerizing questions
than the garden variety projects of my classmates, what with their pedestrian
baking-soda volcanoes and hamster-perplexing mazes.
I was drawn to the topic of pain the same way I was to the
riveting made-for-TV John Travolta movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble of that
era, about the freakishness that results when the body goes awry. It had the
same pull as the horrible, terrorizing historical accounts of Jewish girls my
age hiding from the Nazis, such as in the Scholastic book Marta and the
which was most likely ordered from the back of a Weekly Reader, about a German
girl stashing the family diamonds in the head of a doll she carried away in the
train going over the border. And then there was the story of the more famous
real-life Dutch girl hiding in an attic covered in movie posters, in a story
still too dark for me to fully comprehend. Probably Catholic kids feel the same
weird connection to tales of martyred saints riddled with arrows, sleeping on
piles of bricks, wearing gloves filled with nettles, and/or willingly starving
themselves to death. They just eat that stuff up.
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