Days of Grace

Meditations and practices for those living with illness


Aching Soles

Is there a connection between poor spiritual and physical health?

Written By Jill Piper

FootAt first the ache in my left heel was little more than a tenderness when I put my feet on the floor in the morning. I had no way of knowing this condition would impair me for nearly a year, culminate in surgery and educate me in the ways of chronic pain.

Plantar fasciitis, my diagnosis, is an inflammation of the fascia, the bands of tissue that connect the heel to the balls of the foot. On X-rays, a comma-shaped fragment of bone is the visual clue that the condition has been present for some time. The spur is not the cause of the pain, but is evidence of the body’s attempt to repair the torn fascia.

Not to put too fine a point in it, but the diagnosis came as I had just concluded a period of deep darkness and disorganization. My mother and father had both died of dementia after years of suffering; lifelong friends had moved away; a hit and run accident had cost me thousands of dollars and months of discomfort; my childhood home had been demolished.

To a chapter at the end of which I desperately wanted to place a period, plantar fasciitis came as an ellipsis…a three-point punctuation mark meaning no end in sight.

For months, pain dictated my routine. Instead of taking orders from my mind, my foot was in charge of where I went, what I said yes to, and how many productive hours I had on a given day. My physical and emotional selves were stalled at the same intersection; I couldn’t move forward and I couldn’t go back.

Our attempts to understand the origins of illness are as old as the Bible. In John 9:3, followers of Jesus ask him, “Who sinned: this man or his parents that he was born blind?” In Biblical times, suffering was commonly attributed to sin. The mind/body connection is a frequent topic on talk shows. Oprah has said that when her clothes fit too tight, viewers can accurately conclude “she’s going through some times.”

A newscaster friend of mine, who does three newscasts a day, community events and all the duties of husband and father, broke his arm recently while riding his bike. He interpreted the fracture as an opportunity to examine his tendency to overbook himself. “I took my fractured wrist as a gigantic stop sign from my higher power,” he said. “As I pondered the cast and all the multi-tasking I am prone to attempt, I took a deep breath and asked for God’s help in slowing down…It might be the best break I ever had—an opportunity to slow down and get in tune with God’s will.”

While many Christians have learned the habit of mining it for meaning when illness comes our way, I wondered if I had done anything to court the pain in my foot by being stuck in so many places.

Did the emotional vulnerability of grief and care-giving predispose me to injury, or did I feel fragile as the result of months of inescapable heel pain?

Dr. David Forbes, a founder and director of Nashville Integrated Medicine and trustee of the American Holistic Medicine Association, said the subject doesn’t lend itself to oversimplification. “To me there are two polar opposites that are frequently voiced, neither of which I find accurate or helpful:

“The standard Western notion is that it would be absurd to liken what’s going on with a patient’s health to the events in their life in any kind of causative way,” he says.

“The other pole is that there’s some kind of linear, easily definable cause and effect link that would sound like, ‘I’ve got this illness so let me figure out what I did wrong.’ That’s very popular in this kind of fundamentalist new age approach.”

Dr. Forbes favors the notion that everything is deeply connected. “At the same time there is a mystery there that we cannot fully comprehend. So we have to step very lightly in drawing too many direct linear connections, particularly to the degree that it causes tension and anxiety.”

There are common conditions that have a significant component of “here’s where I swallow my stress,” according to Dr. Forbes,. These include upper back and neck pain, stomach discomfort, lower back pain and bowel issues. “Stress always plays out in body tension and where we hold tightness. Everybody packs that differently.”

The thrust of integrated medicine (also variously called holistic and alternative medicine) is to acknowledge the relationship between not only lifestyle and health, but life circumstance.

Forbes said it can be helpful for people to connect the dots. “If they’ve come from the standard Western background they need to see if, for instance, the fact that they’ve been swallowing their feelings all their lives might be connected to their gastritis.”

But don’t blame yourself. “There’s also an enormous number of people who connect those dots too tightly and get completely wrapped up in anxiety and tension of ‘how did I do this to myself?’ That’s why I think it’s important to hold a center line that leaves open the very real mystery that we don’t know exactly why something has happened.” While holistic medicine looks at the whole person, it’s still grounded in medicine, not an emotional scavenger hunt.

“I believe there are many reasons why (medical) things happen, only one of which is that something has happened in our lives that needs to be corrected,” he said. “That’s definitely a possibility but not the only possibility. We have to honor the mystery in that. Holding that mystery always at the center of it is what’s essential to giving ourselves a break while we look for remedies. We look for links but with a very soft, gentle heart.

“My ultimate measuring stick for anything I’m going to engage in with a patient has to answer to the law of love or it’s a miss.”

Stephen Pressfield, author of The Legend of Bagger Vance, used an illustration from medicine to make a point in his non-fiction book about living an authentic life, The War of Art. Pressfield cites the work of a Jungian psychologist whose specialty is working with people who have been diagnosed with cancer. Once they embrace the deeper, more grounded perspective they acquire from a brush with mortality, it’s remarkable how often their cancers go into remission. Pressfield writes,

Is it possible… that the disease itself evolved as a consequence of actions taken (or not taken) in our lives? Could our unlived lives have exacted their vengeance upon us in the form of cancer? And if they did, can we cure ourself, now, by living these lives out?

It’s something to think about. But back to my foot.

I wish I could tell you I thought happy thoughts and the pain went away. But that’s not what happened. I had surgery. I guess the truest thing you can say is a medical solution led me out of spiritual situation.

The textbook of Alcoholics Anonymous contains the before and after stories of recovering alcoholics from all walks of life. One of the stories, written by a doctor, contains this passage: “When I stopped living in the problem and began living in the answer, the problem went away.”

He was talking about his problem with alcohol, of course, but he could have been talking about my left foot. For what it’s worth, this column is the first significant writing I’ve done in over a year. Am I living in the answer? You decide.

Copyright ©2008 Jill Piper