“Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we are free at last”.
This was Martin Luther King Jr’s rallying cry as he concluded his historic “I have a dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
The lyrics of the moving spiritual song are also words many long to sing for health reasons. Struggling with long-standing ailments such as chronic pain can feel like second class citizenship, which Martin Luther King Day today reminds us never to accept.
So what might be the basis for not accepting second class health? Perhaps because its as innate to our spiritual sense to feel health is natural as it is politically to demand equal rights.
“In health there is freedom. Health is the first of all liberties,” mused Swiss poet and philosopher Henri Frédéric Amiele.
In the fight for that freedom, medical professionals increasingly pinpoint mental oppressors, rather than just addressing physiological symptoms. As one pain expert recently put it at a conference I attended: “The psychology of the pain is as important, if not more important, than any drugs we can give.”
Indeed, a recently published study showed an individual’s anger level having a direct bearing on chronic pain intensity. Conversely, according to another paper, such pain responds positively to forgiveness, especially self-forgiveness. The research concluded: “Forgiveness of self appears to be the most important to health, yet the most difficult to achieve.”
A kindred spirit of Dr King’s would have concurred with the latter point. Despite all the challenges he faced as leader of South Africa’s post-apartheid transition, Nelson Mandela told Oprah Winfrey in 2000 “the most difficult task in life…is changing yourself”.
Indeed, winning the kind of inner, moral victories that can help improve our wellbeing isn’t always easy. It can take persistence and prayer to develop “honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, pure generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve”, which Madiba once called “the foundations of one’s spiritual life”.
As demanding as that might sometimes seem to be, nevertheless faithfully nurturing such a moral foundation still leaves plenty of room for spiritual growth. A key book on Mind-healing identifies a spiritual superstructure beyond that, consisting of “wisdom, purity, spiritual understanding, spiritual power, love, health, holiness” (Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures by Mary Baker Eddy). It also identifies the perhaps surprising idea that these qualities describe who we truly are as sons and daughters of the Divine and that healing can come by sincerely understanding this.
As one rescued from recurring pain and many other ailments through such means, I can vouch for the fact that glimpsing this “surprising idea” and being healed by it certainly makes the heart sing: “Free at last!”