Monday, July 03, 2006


I had an MRI of my left shoulder recently. It took some months for me to be sure this pain was not going away. In fact it’s been getting worse. There are some routine things I can’t do now. I can’t use a drive-up ATM. I suppose I could if I twisted myself around enough that I could use only my right arm, but the walk-up ATM is a better alternative. I could adapt to this pain, in part with heavy drinking maybe. I could go the rest of my life with it, as any human being would have had to do until just a few decades ago. I’m glad I don’t have to.

Since I like cheap health care, it took weeks to see the doctor and more weeks to get the first available appointment for an MRI, even at 9:30 at night. But now that’s done. There’s some reassurance when you see a doctor’s expression change as he realizes that you have a real problem. “You can’t move it any more than that,” he said, any sign of uncertainty disappearing from his face. OK, it’s straightforward after crossing that threshold, even for an HMO.

Ah, MRI, what incredible pictures one can make with radio waves exploring one’s protons while lying in a magnet. No radiation, no needles usually, all the patient has to endure is lying in what is a lot like a coffin with the noises of heavy machinery inches from your face. Hey, I’ve done it before. I had an MRI of my brain as a pilot subject for a drug study that I was involved in. It let me appreciate why some patients need Valium to endure any MRI, but it wasn’t that much of a challenge. The tech scolded me, showing me the pictures where I had moved at one point. Hey, my back started hurting. I had to move. I knew the pictures would still be good enough. They were.

The tech this time informed me that it’s harder for them to get good images on an MRI of the shoulder than any other body part. NO MOVING! OK, I’ll be good.

It’s worse than that. For whatever reason the radiologists want to look at my shoulder in a position I don’t get into any more. It’s hurts. It doesn’t hurt terribly, but it hurts. Let’s see. We have a test where people who have the problem the test detects have trouble getting through the test with readable results, while those without the problem, with pain for other reasons, can get into the necessary posture and have good enough pictures to say they’re normal. Gee, so what do you need the $3 million machine for? I know, pictures are proof. So let’s get the pictures.

The position they wanted didn’t hurt that badly, not like reaching for an ATM. If it were just a little pain, I could keep that up a long time. On first being pushed into the tube, there isn’t much more than that. Yes, the machine is right in front of my face. Yes the machinery noises are just the same as before. Big deal, maybe I can go to sleep, though probably not with this pain.

The first five minutes were easy. The first ten were straightforward. After that was harder. At first it had seemed that I was in a position I could hold forever. There was better support under my knees this time, so my back was fine. My neck got tired, though. Gee, it would take some major moving to figure out how to rest it – too late for that. I also realized I had a growing desire to take a deep breath. We do that occasionally, you know, to aerate the lesser-used parts of our lungs, something like that. Whatever it’s for, I wanted that sigh. I tried taking some deeper breaths each time. It helped a little.

I had gone into the MRI knowing I had done it before, and this wasn’t much different. I figured I could talk to God for 20 minutes or so, and we’d be done. Fortunately God requires no space to be with me. I started doing that, subvocally. God said a few things back. These growing problems took my attention away from Him, though. Can you fix this, God? I forget any exact response, but the gist of it was no, He can’t.

That wasn’t the answer I wanted. I needed to move. I needed to breathe deeply. I guess I could wait for a while, but how long? The tech had put a panic button in my right hand. Surely I wouldn’t need that. If most people can get this done, then I can. I have a lot of experience with endurance. If you don’t stop, there often isn’t anything that can make you stop. Well, sometimes there is. Just this morning my computer stopped me with another round of errors that my Dell machine is prone to. But my body is made of sterner stuff. It’s going to outlive my computer by far.

For years I’ve had this trick when I get my blood drawn. I put myself up into the corner of the ceiling or into some poster. It barely hurts at all that way. I suppose a very bad phlebotomist with a barbed needle could bring my attention back, but I haven’t run into one.

I usually can stop the reality of any situation to talk with God, too. If I don’t remember to do that, He has this habit of showing up anyway. There was this problem on an airplane once, one where we all got to slide off the wing to get out of there. God told me right away it would be OK, before it was apparent it would be. She was very helpful that day.

Inside the MRI there wasn’t much for God to do. There were too many physical problems without solutions, the pain from my shoulder I could only endure, the trouble breathing I could only endure, the discomfort elsewhere I could only endure, unless I pressed that panic button. Well, it makes it easier to endure knowing that escape is an option.

I was wondering how long I was going to last when a solution came to me. There were two strips of light inside the MRI. The plastic covers had these finely spaced ridges on them. I started counting them. It was an impossible task since they were too tightly spaced to keep my place in counting them. That was even better. I could focus on this thing even more that way, repeatedly starting over. If you keep starting over, you never have to stop. The pain was still there. I still needed to breathe and move, but I had something else to do instead. It worked. I kept that up until the tech took me out.

Maybe if I had had a picture of God to study, God would have been enough. It’s hard to ignore how visual we are as creatures. Whatever spiritual side there is to the universe, it’s harder to reach for that than something physical. I suppose that’s why there are so many objects and rituals in religion and so many rules for negotiating one’s physical life. Some meditators claim to be able to leave the physical world behind. Let’s see how they do in an MRI with my shoulder.

I’ve thought of sterner tests for the spiritually minded over the years. Often if I’m stuck in a bad traffic jam where both the car and I are seriously overheating, I think of an endurance test like when Jews had to ride in boxcars to the death camps. How spiritual could one be then? How spiritual could one be nailed to a cross, whether one thought oneself the Messiah or some lowly powerless prisoner. Either way the Romans crucified countless prisoners. Others had their own tortures like impalement. I have a feeling that in every torture like that, the physical universe demands one’s complete attention.

Of course most tortures are not voluntary. People endure them until their torturers stop or the victims lose consciousness or die. I understand torturers tend to avoid anything that mitigates their victim’s suffering like unconsciousness or even screaming. Gags have many benefits to them. I think of how glad I am not to have my shoulder injury 50 years ago. How glad also I am not to be trying to figure out how to endure torture, just an MRI.

I am convinced that God has much greater limits than traditionalists are willing to believe. How much worse it was for martyrs if God couldn’t do anything to mitigate their physical experience. Maybe screams help. Maybe all kinds of physical things help. Maybe endurance isn’t just about God and I helping each other, but is about how many resources the physical universe give us as well, possibilities we’re only now coming to value. Once it was, “God please save me,” with no backup plan. One doesn’t have to be an atheist to see that differently. One also doesn’t have to see God as being in everything, even light fixtures.

It’s taken me much longer to write this than to endure my MRI. Yet all these ideas went through my mind to some degree during those twenty minutes. It’s how I look for solutions, unless one presents itself to me. I would love to leave such things for God to take care of. It doesn’t seem to work that way. I need my experiences to have endurance. I need my desire for perfection and my competitiveness. Even more I need my desire not to have to do this stupid test all over again. There is no magic wand for God to wave. As much as I value that God is always with me, the physical universe is always with me as well. The cooperative effort that it takes to live by God’s will involves at least these three. It helps if no one wants to torture me, too. If all these cooperate, I can endure. I understand why so many have tried to make it simpler, either a matter of God’s will or my will. Neither is enough. There are too many other actors in the play, both animate and inanimate.

Next is the surgery. I hear the recovery is surprisingly lengthy. I’ll endure. God is my ally. I’ll find other allies, animate and inanimate. Then when I finally don’t endure, I’m told there’s an entirely different level of endurance I’ll experience. I wonder if there’s a picture of God with that one, maybe even the real thing.

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