The problem of pain

02 November 2006


I WRITE this just back from a party where I had a remarkable encounter with a completely honest PR person.

“I love your column,” he said to me. “It’s the second thing I turn to, most weeks. Obviously, if we’ve put something out, I look first to see how the story is handled. But then I turn to your column and it always makes me feel better.

“Mind you, I can’t remember a word of it. If you asked me two days later what was in it, I wouldn’t have the faintest idea. But I know I enjoyed it.”

A third party who was present left the room hurriedly at this point, stuffing a handkerchief into his mouth as he walked.

But actually this is how anyone who reads too many newspapers feels. Only occasionally do you come across something that sticks right out of the mainstream and is not rolled away with the rest towards oblivion. Such a piece was Sacha Bonsor’s account, in Monday’s Telegraph, of her brain surgery and its aftermath.

In the course of the surgery, one of the nerves that carry pain signals up from the spinal cord was injured.

“One of the problems with pain is that we do not have the words to describe it. My pain is best illustrated by the thoughts that accompanied it: during the week after surgery, if someone had given me a gun, I would have fired it at my head.

“I do not know if, as the Oxford report aims to discover, I would have been in more pain without my faith, but I do know that, in the heat of the moment, God did not come into it — not even for a thank you that I was alive.”

Ms Bonsor has, she says, “a strong Christian faith”. But her experience seems to me to show up Rowan Williams’s argument, in a Times article, against euthanasia. It is, as you would expect, subtle, careful, and well put. The central point seems to be this: “Do I have a right to die? Religious believers answer for themselves that they do not. For a believer to say, ‘The time could come when I find myself in a situation that has no meaning, and I reserve the right to end my life in such a situation,’ would be to say that there is some aspect of human life where God cannot break through. It would be to say that when I as an individual can no longer give meaning to my life, it has no value, and human dignity is best served by ending it.

“That would be in the eyes of most traditional believers, Christian or otherwise, an admission that faith had failed. It would imply that life at a certain level of suffering or incapacity simply could no longer be lived in relation to God.”

The problem with this argument is that faith, in that sense, does fail. At certain levels of suffering and incapacity, life cannot be lived in any conscious sense at all. At best it can be endured. Here is what happened to Sacha Bonsor: “The nine-inch incision went from the top of my spine to the middle of my head and looped over to behind my right ear. The muscle connecting my shoulder and my neck had been severed, my skull peeled back and the brainstem exposed to the knife.

“When I came round, I wore earplugs, lights were dimmed, I could hardly swallow or whisper and every bit of my energy was consumed in combating the unbearable pain that invaded my entire being.”

Slowly, though, she did recover. The operation seemed successful. When she looked back from health restored, “I saw that the pain had rendered me childlike, accepting: a fleeting glimpse of the state to which, as a struggling Christian, I had been taught to aspire.” Then she had another brain haemorrhage, requiring the operation to be redone.

“On the day itself, such moments of vision left me entirely. I lay in the pre-med room with a fellow patient, a six-year-old girl who was having seizures and whose relatives were being informed that, for her to live, half her brain needed to be cut out.

“When I woke up in intensive care and realised that I could lift my arm, something that took me three months to do last time, we all enjoyed happy disbelief. Although the ensuing pain was intense, at no stage did I want to kill myself. Perhaps that was because the nerve had not been touched this time, or because I was merrily pouring cannabis drops down my throat. It was not due to a stronger faith; if anything, my faith had felt weaker.”

When she told her mother that she had not experienced God, her mother replied that, perhaps, God was the one wheeling her into the theatre. History does not record the answer that the mother of the six-year-old girl in the next bed would have given.

PAUL JOHNSON, writing in The Spectator, has a brisk way with all these arguments about suffering and tsunamis. “Any reminder of the ultimate and total powerlessness of human beings, made always necessary by our arrogance and boasting, must be an act of God, and a very sensible and benevolent one, too.

“It can also be argued — and this is what our bishops, if they had any sense, would be arguing — that such events make us think about transience and death, and our own preparedness for our extinction and the life to come.

“So the calamity — so distressing for those individually involved — was for humanity as a whole a profoundly moral occurrence, and an act of God performed for our benefit.”

We have here a mystery. The same commentators who accuse the Archbishop of twisting words or revelling in obscurity and paradox believe that there is someone responsible for the condition of a six-year-old girl who must have half her brain cut away, and that this person can be described as sensible, benevolent, and profoundly moral.

The Church Times Podcast

Interviews and news analysis from the Church Times team. Listen to this week’s episode online

Subscribe now to get full access

To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read up to twelve articles for free. (You will need to register.)