Liuan Huska’s new book Hurting Yet Whole: Reconciling Body and Spirit in Chronic Pain and Illness recounts her experience with an undiagnosed chronic pain condition that began when she was 22, fresh out of college and newly married. Through years of doctor visits, depression, and repeated attempts at prayer, she began to pull together a new way to imagine our relationship with our ailing bodies and their creator. Liuan is a former participant in the Collegeville Institute’s summer writing workshop program. Catherine Hervey had a recent conversation with Liuan, shared here.
In a different season, the topic of chronic pain and illness could carry the illusion of being “niche,” but right now every single one of us is living with limits imposed upon us by a disease to which our bodies are vulnerable. What would you say to those of us who are experiencing these kinds of limitations for the first time?
This is a societal chronic illness that we’re going through. The pandemic is corporate and not individual. Chronic illness as the niche experience you’re talking about is very isolating. You’re alone in your body and there’s a sense that nobody else feels what you feel and there’s no way to communicate the depth of fatigue or pain.
What I had to realize in my own experience with chronic pain was that limits are normal to being human, and we all fall on a spectrum of able-bodied and disabled. That allowed me to work with the possibilities I had, instead of feeling like I had to get back to the normal I’d had before. I hope that living with limits could be a way for people to frame their Covid-19 experience and allow them to be present, instead of trying to claw their way back to normalcy.
I’m interested in this idea of normalcy, because you write about it in several different ways throughout the book, both in terms of American society and also in our spiritual lives as American Christians. Can you say a little bit about what we view as “normal,” and how far from God we’ve wandered with those assumptions?
I write about not being “spiritually productive” in pain. Beyond the physical limitations, there’s a fatigue that makes it really hard, like your body is calling you to just go inside yourself. The feeling I’ve gotten in those times is that this isn’t spiritual, which isn’t exactly helpful. This is me ignoring the call God has for me and instead focusing on what I have internalized from my Christian surroundings: that I need to overcome and get past what my body is telling me and get past my creaturely limitations in order to do things for God. So when I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t sleep because I was in pain and having a panic attack, I felt like I still had to make use of it. Like I had to turn my pain into something that was spiritually beneficial.
And what would that have looked like? What, in your mind, would have turned your pain into something spiritually beneficial?
The admonition that people who are physically limited might get: you can pray for people. If you wake up in the middle of the night and you feel dark and disconnected from the world, well, pray for people.
It sounds like what you’re saying is that it wouldn’t have felt like a sufficiently spiritual practice to simply experience what you were experiencing.
Yeah. And there’s also the need to find the purpose and meaning, the “why” that suffering people wrestle with. That’s so common, to want our suffering to have a purpose. And I don’t think that’s a bad desire, but I think that the ways we try to fit that purpose into our ideas of what is beneficial and productive can make it so we don’t fully experience our suffering for what it is. We want to come up with the bottom line–why this is happening and how it’s going to be used–before we’ve gotten to the point where it can be used, and maybe we’ll never know the bottom line.
So at this point would you say that fully experiencing your own suffering is a sufficient spiritual practice in itself?
Definitely. That’s a model Jesus gave us in the Incarnation. If I were to encapsulate my book in one word, it would just be “presence.” There’s no “God is going to use your pain for this or that.” It’s just: God is here, in it, and that’s all we need to know.
You make the important point that Jesus remains even now in a human body. What can the scriptural glimpses of Jesus’ resurrected body tell us about what hope for our ailing bodies looks like?
I’ve always felt really unsatisfied when people say things like “Jesus will make it all perfect in the resurrection.” Obviously there are the Revelation passages where he’ll wipe away every tear from our eye and the lame will dance, but our bodies are so connected to our sense of identity, and what our bodies can or can’t do shapes who we are. So for me, when I hear someone say “we’re going to be limitless in the resurrection” or that the resurrection is about becoming perfect again, whatever that means, that feels like an erasure to me of everything I’ve lived through in my body up to the resurrection.
You wouldn’t want that?
No, for the same reasons that Jesus had scars to show his disciples. Hope means that God sees the suffering. I don’t know that “value” is the right word because I don’t think that suffering is good, but God makes beautiful things happen out of the suffering. So yeah, I don’t think I’d want an erasure.
This makes me think of the way you handle this elusive concept of wholeness that’s in your title. What does wholeness mean to you now, and how different is it from what wholeness looked like to you before your pain started?
I find wholeness compelling because I want to feel at home in my body and with myself. In the beginning when my pain first started, I thought that meant I had to make my body fit with my conception of who I was as a functioning individual, a person who could do things. I wanted to make my body match that, and because my body didn’t match that I felt broken and disconnected. As I went through years of my body not conforming and being domesticated, I still wanted that sense of integration. I want to believe there’s a deeper layer of truth that holds contradicting things together. That is, as I’ve understood it, trying to seek wholeness–that sense of coherence.
What would a church that is truly supportive of people suffering with chronic health issues, people seeking that kind of wholeness, look like?
I think I would have to see one.
So you haven’t?
I haven’t. When I first started having pain, it was hard to parse out my own depression and disconnect–whether it was just my mental state or whether it also had to do with having a chronic condition and being in church. I saw women with babies who looked really happy and people dancing in the aisles and I felt marginal to the life of the church. It was so lively, but in a way I was unable to participate.
I did have this image, as you were asking that question, about a church I attended for a friend’s baptism. I remember the priest had some kind of knee injury at the time. She had to go up to the sanctuary in a walker, and then she had to be held on both sides by people as she was going up the stairs. And then there was a stool for her when she finally got up there. And I was like, wow. There’s me, as I would have liked to be seen. As the center, not the margin.