I learned a new term from my chiropractor: antalgic lean. He explained that antalgic means “holding oneself away from pain.” I just love that there’s a word for that and it’s a perfect descriptor for what’s going on in our world today. Avoiding pain is something that most of us do as a matter of course, not just in our bodies but in our lives generally. But in the chiropractic definition, and in life generally, there are unintended consequences to holding oneself away from pain. When you lean away from pain in your right hip, pretty soon your sacrum is askew and your spine is awry and your left knee starts hurting because the pain gets deferred in a domino misalignment of the whole body. The pain is still there; it’s just borne somewhere else. And isn’t that the way it always is? In the body that is our world, until and unless you resolve the source of the pain, it’s always still there; it’s just borne somewhere else.
In Rana Plaza, in Bangladesh, where over 700 garment workers died in a building collapse a couple weeks ago, the pain of inexpensive clothing was felt acutely. The workers had been ordered to continue working in a building deemed dangerous because production simply had to continue. They were not in a position to refuse. Back in November, a fire at a garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh was virtually the same story.
These kinds of things used to happen in this country. Think of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire here in New York in 1911 where 146 garment workers died. Unsafe building, locked doors, poor workers who had no choice but to keep working. After the fire the labor movement managed to enforce some safety standards and a few minimal rights for workers. So what happened? It was more expensive to produce clothing this way and the consumers wouldn’t bear the pain of higher prices and the producers wouldn’t bear the pain of lower profit margins and so we collectively developed an antalgic lean and deferred the pain to Bangladesh. Factories now collapse there instead of here. The pain still exists; it’s just borne somewhere else.
What is the right religious response to these gruesome realities where someone else is paying our bills and then some? What does it mean when so often the root source of the body’s pain turns out to be us – the cars we drive, the clothes we buy, the food we eat, the companies we invest in, the technologies we enjoy, the politicians we elect? It’s especially hard for religious people to know what to do because religion itself has taken an antalgic turn over the last half century. Modern, enlightened religious people are supposed to be happy, engaged with the secular world, delighting in our culture. We’re supposed to get spiritually attuned through positive thinking and self-care and then good things will flow into our lives. It’s a very attractive theology: God wants you to be happy. God wants you to have those Gap jeans or that iPhone because you’re worth it. These days, any religion that forces you to choose between itself and worldly pleasures is seen as a throwback to the dark ages. Suffering is out of style.
Although these theologies often come wrapped in the guise of liberalism, I believe they are actually deeply regressive. They serve as a religious accessory to the voracious capitalism of our day. They reinscribe social norms. They embrace a secular understanding of what’s reasonable. By contrast, the religious leaders and movements we tend to most admire from across the ages are those who do precisely the opposite. They are countercultural. They transgress. They suffer. They identify with the poor and the powerless. They don’t live the good life. In fact, they tend to get killed.
Think of the Hebrew prophets, including Jesus. Think of Gandhi or King. The rich spiritual connection that they seemed to have had did not play out in the form of material wealth or easy, conflict-free lives. They struggled, they were poor, some of them met untimely and horrific demises. They taught that not only should we not deflect pain that is rightfully ours, but we should actually invite and absorb the pain of evil into ourselves and thereby purify the world. I think if we are really honest with ourselves, we know that this is what it means to lead a religious life.
In practical terms, the average Tikkun reader may not be ready to become a Gandhi or a King or to move to Bangladesh and become a labor activist. I know I’m not. Nonetheless, I believe that we have a religious obligation do something to resist the antalgic lean and move toward tikkun olam. It’s ultimately not about achieving perfection today or tomorrow or even in this lifetime, but about the direction we are moving. It’s about coming to know ourselves, not as individuals maximizing self-interest, but as part of the body of the world. This is the essence of the Sh’ma – one God, one world: a oneness undergirds reality and all separation is ultimately illusion.
Every time we inch toward engaging the pain of the world; when we make choices that are gentle and positive for humans and animals and rainforests and oceans; when we take risks for justice today where yesterday we might have remained passive, when we seek out places of need in our world this year where last year we might have kept to ourselves; then we are participating in the chiropractic process of bringing the body of the world into alignment. It’s alignment to the deep, internal axis of the universe – the locus of love and compassion that some of us call God.