I am still reeling from the sights I saw earlier today: the mature English wooded garden that has been so green, so vital for my recovery from depression, and such a rich source of photographs from my bed, has been destroyed. Decimated and flattened in order to make way for development. It may just be a piece of suburban garden that has gone, but it is ‘just’ another one, and ‘just’ another one, and ….
The destruction of these trees has hit me like a body blow. The stress and emotional inability to express my grief and outrage has exacerbated an already bad health patch. But as I lay in bed this afternoon, I had to admit that part of my grief was for my own complicity in such acts of cynical greed that are happening all over the planet. Like the plight of the Sengwer people, an ancient tribe in Kenya who have been dwelling in the Embobut forest for centuries. Their tribal lands are being stripped and deforested at a massive rate, removing not only their agricultural livelihood, but also their deep spiritual connections to the earth. How often do I really speak out about these injustices? How often do I fling myself on my face in front of our Holy God and ask for forgiveness, for every time I do not check where my food came from, who made my clothes, how I might dispose of every piece of the rubbish I use?
However long it is since I have been able to leave my house, the point is this: my body is intimately connected to Creation about me, near and far, seen and unseen; so thinking about my felt connection with the cords of the trees sawn down today in my garden also resonated with a further conversation I’ve been having with myself. I have had to spend the best part of four weeks in bed, and I’ve wondered if I need to try some different techniques to ‘befriend the pain’ and so manage it better. My attempts are hit and miss, and I definitely need to keep practicing! I’m currently reading Timothy Keller’s book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, and am struck by the question he poses: Why do we seek to avoid pain at all costs? And why are we, in modern western materialist culture at least, so under equipped to handle all kinds of suffering?
I had intended to write about my own experience of listening to my pain and hopefully communicate my steps along a very ancient path: healing happens when heart, mind, body, soul and spirit sing together. But this ‘oh-so-holy’ attitude immediately came bang smack against my own hypocrisy and my part in the stewardship of creation. I take two, sometime three, different types of pain killers. As such, I am hugely dependent on and complicit in the machinations of big Pharma.
Don’t get me wrong, I am deeply thankful for the work of scientists in the relief of pain: for their education, training, experience, minute attention, patience, inventiveness and desire to find solutions. On the other hand, as I learn to listen to my pain and in silence hear what it might teach me, I wonder about the extent to which, by taking my meds, I dull my senses, and reduce ‘life’ to ‘merely existing’ on the bad days. If I entered fully into feeling and sensing my body, what might I learn instead?
Not that I especially want to do this you understand – pain distracts me from concentrating on studying and writing; it makes me grumpy with those around me when the painkillers’ effect has worn off; and it stops me from twisting my body to get the right angle to take a photograph. But isn’t it worth asking the question: not just for my personal spiritual and physical journey, but also for the economic, scientific and potential transformative power we have given these big companies? What do they take from the earth’s resources to get the ingredients for my pills? How much energy do they consume to make my medications? And what do they put back in the way of polluting chemical outpourings, just in order to make my painkillers? I feel I should know, and am ashamed that I haven’t thought enough about it, or researched the answers.
Would it be a more honest position of stewardship for me to join in with the ‘groaning of creation’ as trees are cut down, rivers polluted, and minerals mined, to refrain from taking my medications?
I showed a draft of this post to my parents, who were very distressed to think I would cease taking my medication; and rightly concerned that no one should think I was encouraging anyone else to stop taking theirs, or making others feel guilt at using what many can and do argue are God-given healing resources made from the grace of human technological progress; nor that anyone should feel I am criticising a medical profession to whom I am profoundly thankful, and their God-given inventiveness at responding to human needs.
But still, the questions proliferate. How do I deal with the irony that as I write this in bed on my Ipad, and others read it on mobiles or laptops, and we are connected in such a way that makes us part of this new community God is building, mining companies are reaping from the earth a fantastic amount of minerals just to feed our social dependency on this type of communication? Can you say hand on heart this industry is ethical or not? because I can’t … And what about those servers in the deserts throwing out all that heat? … I was listening to a programme about Ernst & Young auditing a gold refining company in Dubai who provide gold for all our smartphones, and they couldn’t guarantee that ‘conflict gold’ was not getting through the system and being distributed around the world for vast profit… And … And….
All I want to do is to voice some of the many questions that I ponder because of my illness: if I think I am isolated from Creation, other than what I see outside my window, think again!
Writing these guest-blogs has encouraged me to explore what connects my own physical brokenness to the brokenness of Creation. As Susan Sontag insisted, illness is not a metaphor. My body really does feel broken at the moment, but then so is so much of the world beyond my walls. I am grateful to those like CS Lewis who have thought about some of the theological dynamics of these things ahead of me,
“God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pain.”
This I know: listening to God in my core points, at least for my own body this day, to a path of healing way beyond any prescribed pharmaceutical intervention.
Kate Kennington Steer is a writer and photographer with a deep abiding passion for contemplative photography and spirituality. She writes about these things on her shot at ten paces blog.