David Biro M.D., Ph.D.

Listening to Pain

The Passion and Picasso

Compelling Metaphors of Human Suffering in Religion and Art

Posted Sep 14, 2012

In my last blog I discussed an important way people think about and understand pain, the trope of mirroring – we project our pain onto other people and things (like the sky or a song) so that we could see it (and ourselves) better. Like all tropes, this kind of projection involves the imagination and works on varying levels of complexity. A sufferer can “find” his pain in the things around him or he can actually create them de novo, like my friend and chronic pain patient who made that remarkable sculpture of herself: a supine woman on an exam table with wires pinpointing and perhaps triggering her pain.

 But not everyone can be so imaginative, especially when they are sick and in pain. This is why culture is critical to a society’s health and well-being. The work of our great poets, artists, and musicians are available to everyone and can also act like mirrors, reflecting our inner worlds. When we find it difficult to articulate and make sense of our pain, we can look to the paintings of Munch and Kahlo, the writing of Tolstoy and Toni Morrison, and the music of Mahler and Gorecki.

How comforting that someone is able to represent - to put into some intelligible form - what seems like our deeply personal, private feelings, things we cannot fully express ourselves!

I suspect, however, that the most far-reaching mirror of human suffering – even to someone like myself who is not particularly religious – has to be the passion of Christ as told in the Gospel and illustrated in countless paintings, alterpieces, and icons. For the believer who is ill or grieving, or who has suffered in any number of countless ways, Christianity has provided an accessible and powerful image that expresses his or her pain and in doing so, alleviates some of its most distressing attributes: its amorphousness, invisibility, incommunicability, and isolation.

Jesus in extremis speaks to the sufferer in extremis in comforting and consoling tones: As I suffer, you suffer. Others may doubt, but never me. I understand what you are going through and share your pain. You are not alone.

As a physician who cares for sick people, as a patient who has experienced a fair share of pain, and as an ordinary person who has lost and ached in ordinary ways, I will always be grateful for the bounty of religious and cultural artifacts at our disposal that provide solace in times of need. Not dependent on the good will and generosity of any particular person, they are there for us even when our physicians, spouses, and friends are not.



About the Author

David Biro, M.D., Ph.D., practices in New York and teaches at the SUNY Downstate Medical Center. His book, Listening to Pain, draws upon his background in the humanities and medicine.

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