Yesterday in church I was asked to read the lessons. The lesson from the old testament told the story of Jacob who wrestles with a man (an angel? God?) who wounds him in his thigh. This is interestingly a physical wounding, so that Jacob limps. The man asks him his name and when Jacob tells him, he renames him Israel.
This ancient story made me think of a therapist whom I once consulted at a stressful and anxious time in my life. I remember sitting looking out through her windows on Central Park West with all their many plants which grew in the window sill and climbed across the windows.
She said to me, “Think of anxiety as if it were an animal, a beast, a demon you must wrestle with. Fight it!”
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When I walked out of her office and across Central Park the image kept coming to me of wrestling with a demon and almost I lifted my fists to punch the air. In some strange way, transforming my anxiety from something I had passively suffered from into something which I could fight actively, put me in control at least to some extent which I found comforting.
Still, is this the best way to deal with stress or particularly physical pain? At another time in my life I was taught quite the opposite technique. Going to classes before the birth of my baby, we were taught to relax into the pain, to accept it, indeed think of it as something necessary and good. When a strong contraction came we were told to think, “This is a good one!” and to relax completely, to allow the pain to come. This, too, is something I have found helpful though, of course, it didn’t actually work all the way during the labor. When the pains became too fierce, relaxing was certainly not enough.
I remember the young pregnant mother in the class saying she would take a favorite picture with her during the labor and would look at it and think of other things. I wanted to warn her that was not going to do it but wisely bit my tongue.
Certainly there are situations when it is wise to get help for physical or mental pain, and not to go on suffering stoically in silence. Modern medicine has obviously made extraordinary advances and can be very helpful in certain cases.
Still, we can try actively to combat adversity with the old fashioned methods, wrestling mentally with the angels of suffering, or just allowing ourselves to submit to what cannot be altered, to accept and even welcome suffering that cannot be avoided and from which we can certainly learn about life.
Sheila Kohler is the author of many books including the recent Dreaming for Freud.