Neck and back pain: a metaphysical explanation

1. Preamble

A couple of weeks ago, around late April 2020, Galya began to suffer from pain in her neck and shoulders. Though continuing to go to her daily employment, and doing her usual things, she did so with a consciousness of sudden and worrying shocks around the bottom of her head if she moved suddenly or without perfect composure. I myself knew about back pain, and used to murmur to her about how it was related to her mental state, and that it was to do with stress. She, for her part, complained about British doctors, and how they could not help as they do in Bulgaria. She found moving her head painful, and kept her neck as rigid as possible both when sitting, walking, or getting up from a reclining position, while dwelling on her misfortune meanwhile, that she lived in this cold and heartless land. I offered what consolation I could.

In between comments about her absent son, or her demeaning occupation, or how she could not get home or see her family in Bulgaria because of the virus and the lockdown, she would comment about the stiffness in her body.

The other night, we were in the space ship and I was facing my monitor, sorting out some electronic communication problem or other. Behind me she was browsing her own screen, and had already made her usual daily phone calls back home to Bulgaria; but the pain in her body was a constant preoccupation of hers. Overcome by a sharp sense of regret about her situation, and aiming to put her right both about her home, her situation, and her pain, I turned around on the broken stool before the computer screen, and, facing her, delivered a sermon, more or less as follows.

2. The problem:

It is true that a historical injury sustained during a nasty car accident makes her neck delicate, and movement of any kind unnaturally difficult. Further, muscle tissue trapped in some of the bones has from time to time caused the sensation of sharp pain on the nerves at the skin around the bottom of the head – but we had established already that this new discomfort was of a different kind. She told me that she had the feeling of resigning to this new suffering in the same spirit as she had suffered the chronic unease in that area for years.

The sharp feeling of regret for my own neglect was not due to my neglect of her and of assisting her generally. I had attended the hospital three or four times with her over the past year, along with the pharmacy, and the General Practitioners surgery. I had bought her a neck massaging thing at Christmas, and such things which people do for each other.

Rather, my neglect consisted in this: that Galya was reluctant to accept England, and her occupation here, and above all her home here, as her home. This was something I had to talk about with her. Further, her adult son’s absence from her side and the prohibition on him travelling here was something which I knew I could sort out for her, by unconventional means. But the healing and ease of mind which she needed depended on some other things which I knew that I should spell out.

For a start, having lived with me for a year and more, and having had no reservation in making it plain that I felt romantic love for her, we had never said to each other that the house we shared was actually her home. To my mind, this was the first thing she needed to understand.

She resisted, telling me that her home was also Bulgaria. She called a former husband of hers every day in order to be able to speak her native language with this man. I felt no trouble with this of any kind. She freely admitted that she had made mistakes in leaving him, many years ago; and that there was no chance of their marriage reforming. They shared parentage of their son, and a former house which Galya insisted that she still owned. And she insisted that this place in Bulgaria was her home, and that she missed the place and her country. Everything, from the weather, her old school friends, and the acquaintances which she used constantly to make when she was in Bulgaria – all of these thoughts came to mind throughout the day in England, where she had few friends and no native English friends at all. Her self-esteem and happiness were always being reduced because of her occupation here. And above all, she worried that she could not see her son, nor was there a prospect of seeing any grandchildren regularly, when the time came for them to be born.

Holding nothing back I insisted that this house and this country were now her home. And that her current muscular pain was due to her not accepting this fact. That is, the troubles with her body derived entirely from mental distress which she must now put aside. Again, she resisted this idea, talking about future possibilities of grandchildren, and her ownership of the house in Bulgaria, and her greater happiness there.

Remorselessly, I went back to my statement: that here and now, and as far as we are concerned, without any alternative, this is her home. But how can you come to accept something which you do not want to believe, or how can you harness your mind and turn it to a new direction when your mind is the very thing which is trying to do the harnessing?

3. The solution

The collapse of a body due to unbearable stress and longing take place in the heart and the head, and this was what she was suffering. The measures must be drastic. And the hardest thing is for a mind which is full of desire and memories to give up on its desires and take hold of itself.

Let us face facts here. A Christian aims, as the continuous effort of his life, to be with God. When he goes to the icon corner in the house, he sits and does one single and simple thing. He performs the ritual which will bring him close to God. And being close to God means leaving everything else behind. Everything. So, when I sit, as I do not often enough, in silence before the icon of Christ, I aim to let myself die. This is a condition in which my own wealth, my family, people utterly of the highest value to me – my children, and Galya herself – no longer have any claim on me. Indeed, I myself have no claim on me. I aim to have what the Orthodox tradition calls theosis: to be godlike, to become no less than God. This is what the Holy Spirit is for human beings. It makes us part of God.

Let us be clear: at every approach to God, I tell myself that I have only love for myself, and for others, and unrestricted love of every kind of person and thing. I also tell myself that I love my enemies. And, in this state of peace without attachment, it is possible then to leave my life behind. At some point in the following silence, I come to sit before God. He speaks to me, or not – it is all the same.

Now, in a state of being God, a person does not differentiate between any of the particular children he has, whether they are his natural children on the one hand, or whether they are the children of somebody else, on the other. A person who is with God has no individual children, nor a home, nor attachments.

When he thereafter comes from that state of prayer and theosis, he certainly does have his family and home, which it is his duty to care for and to love. But, in the depth, he is also with God still.

Only God can be with God all of the time; and the saints maybe can exist on Earth while praying and being near to God for much of their lives. But the rest of us hang on to that relationship to the truth with our fingertips. And yet it is enough.

Galya had to give up on her strong attachment to her memories and her life in order to reach this state of being near to God, and to being indifferent to her own fate, her strong feelings for her son, and the rest. And this detachment from the world, this closeness to God is the very meaning of life; this is what we are ‘here’ to learn about.

She protested: but God does love individuals, and He loves some people more than others. How can God love everyone equally, even where there are corrupt or stupid and idle, bad people; and, deeply offended, she asked whether I could love her if I was willing to throw aside her individuality and love any or nobody so easily.

There is a duality of human beings; it is sometimes difficult to understand how it is necessary to be two things at once. At the same time, one must love everyone equally as God does; and, at the same time, also let the day come when the truth is revealed and the weight of facts reasserts itself. So, God sees in each person an infinite value. We each have the eternal soul and the eternal life, that thing or state of being which makes us each like God, that which receives the Holy Spirit. God sees us like that, all equally valuable, all of us made for eternal life. The Gospels are full of the insistence that God awaits the moment when the lost soul returns; and when the least of people become the highest. That the lowest and most obscure and hated people are worth as much as the most holy. But also, when the end comes, there is judgement, and God does decide on the value of the soul, when its time is come to leave this life. That is how I see it, for many are called, but few are chosen.

Similarly, a man has a child and a wife; as a Christian, he should see the eternal value of each individual around him, and set aside his own children’s value so that he can find the worth of every child; he will set aside his wife to find the value of all women, etc. But this is so speaking of that Christian who can see the eternal light of love in other people. At the same time, it is his duty to favour his own family and his own beloved. That is an absolute duty: to give protection and care to his own house. As it were, we live in a continuous state of test about whether we will prefer to love our own children and our own home, even though, in the truth of the matter, in Heaven, they are all equally valuable.

In our outward behaviour and our affections, which we have been born into, we must be decisive and led by duty to accept what we have and those who are close to us; but in the deeper life, and in order to be truthful and therefore healthy, we must recognise that any house, any land, and any people are equally both home and desert emptiness; essentially, a Christian prepares for death, when there will be no family, home, or anything else recognisably his own.

And to return to the point at issue here: it is necessary that we accept that we should prepare for death. And that when you are dead, there is no family and no home. You must be emptied out in this life so that you can be filled with God.

Again, Galya was offended, this time not only that God should love other people as much as He loved her: (did she not deserve more love than them, so close to God as she tried to be, so intelligent and always aligning her mind with the highest things?) Rather, this time she objected that we live on after death as I had said, but she added that we remain attached to people and places. She seemed to insinuate that we live on after death almost as ghosts, haunting a place and clinging to a previous life with those who we loved there. Maybe we meet them again hereafter, and that she wanted this to be the case. I replied that we don’t know what happens when we die, exactly. But we do know that we have everlasting life. The signs we might seem to have from the other world might or might not suggest one or other way of existing – but we don’t know. And it is beneath the dignity of an immortal being, particularly God, to have favourites among the created beings. All are loved equally, in their millions on millions, and each individually. But I think it is universally understood by Christians that there is a final judgement upon them and how they have lived, when the time comes.

And, as I have just said, it is the same thing to say that my own son and daughter are the only object of my parental love, and without reserve. So that, when a choice has to be made, they will always be preferred by me. But, when I am close to God, I relinquish hold of these things and love all people and none.

4. End

The sermon done, I looked mournfully at the computer and saw that I had not one much work that evening; I had instead spent more time talking to Galya than was usual. But I had done so to assure her that her neck pains were not physical, but that they were due to her body and spirit angrily complaining to her that her sadness and longing for the impossible had to come to an end. Her body, created by God in this way, was showing her that too much stress and worry is bad for the whole organism, not just bad for the heart. And that she must now let go of those objectives and objects. And, the method which we have for letting go is, amongst other ways, telling her that she had a home here, and that she was at home with me.

Underlying all of this was the potential problem that the bones of her neck really were in danger of failing, and that there really was an underlying physical health problem. We both understood in a rather raw way that a neck injury can sever communication between brain and body, leading to death or paralysis. I didn’t believe this was the case here, but that her illness was psychosomatic.

The next day she was feeling better, and thereafter the usual stiffness due to her slightly excessively long neck and the historical break in the vertebrae resumed, but not the complete immobility which had occasioned our talk. I certainly did not cure her or heal her, but I was certainly right about where certain mental and physical problems come from, and about the meaning of life, and the answer to the question: why are we here?

May, 2020

Design Jason Powell, 2020.