Monday, August 17, 2009

On Crucifixion and Dying from Pain

This weekend my husband and I watched a History Channel documentary on crucifixion. (The kids were spending the night at their grandparents'; this program is not kid-safe material.) The program demonstrated some important aspects of intractable pain and disability for people of any belief.

I can't summarize in an ordered beginning-to-end way. But some of the highlights are this:
-Crucifixion was a routine torture in the Roman empire used as control and preventative. Jesus and the two next to him were not by far the only ones crucified.
-Christ died quickly on the cross, after about six hours. This was a short time after crucifixion--the agony sometimes lasted from three to nine days. The Romans liked to prolong the torture.
-Volunteers have demonstrated some of the physiological effects of crucifixion (they are secured with ropes and not nailed, and the feet placed into a cuplike holder on the cross). For these athletic, healthy volunteers, their heart rate immediately goes up from 75 to 175 and the body is under immediate distress. Their muscles shake and they begin to sweat. Breathing capacity immediately drops by 10%. The volunteers could not endure it over about ten minutes, and this is without nailing and breaking of bones.
-For Jesus, it's hypothesized that he would not have been able to speak at the end if he was already so short on lung capacity. Instead, this early in the process, he probably had bruised his chest and heart from falling with the 100-lb. cross. The high heart rate caused by the pain would have made his heart unable to bear the strain and would have given him a fatal aneuyresm (thus he could still speak and was aware something sudden had happened).
-The question was asked, "Can pain kill?" The answer: "Yes." For most people who were crucified, pain caused death. The documentary refers to the collapse of the body's functions and organs due to the severe stress on them. In part, autonomic dysfunction secondary to pain. Despite the effects of dehydration, loss of blood from beatings, and reduced lung capacity, death resulted from the pain, not from asphyxiation or other causes as originally believed. (The theory of asphyxiation is that people move themselves up to relieve the pain; lung capacity is measurably reduced by the physiological stress.)
-Crucifixion was considered to be shameful, a shameful way to die.

Some suggest that Jesus' sweat turning into blood was hematohidrosis, a documented reaction that occurs from severe anxiety, and that Jesus also experienced severe shock. Shock occured from the flaying and the breaking of bones during nailing as well as from dehydration.

I have seen some people mock the crucifixion; while I understand dislike of organized religion and its effects, Jesus was a rebel against the government, a hippie who ignored laws and rules that were harmful, putting people first. When people can mock this kind of pain, I am reminded of John Donne's "No man is an island." The Nazis also used crucifixion. Many have suffered and died without just cause, for thinking differently or undermining an authority. Who can hear about a poet dragged through the streets of an Eastern European country to his death and not be moved, thinking of one's own friend who lived there and also wrote poetry against the government, who narrowly escaped with his life?

However, people like to think that pain can't kill. Sometimes we hear that pain doesn't kill or can't harm people. We also like to think that people can't feel pain as much when they're in shock or having autonomic dysfunction. So long as they're reasonably conscious, this is absolutely untrue, although they may not have the reserves to complain or respond. The shock that occurs after a major fracture can and sometimes does kill. Prolonged unmitigated pain, whether or not trauma is involved, can result in cardiovascular complications, including heart attack and stroke (, among others).

We often hear that chronic pain does not harm and that people should push past the pain and do more, but for some patients pain can harm. While it is good to keep or build one's capacities to maximize independence and health, to endure some fatigue or pain temporarily to increase endurance and to lower pain for the long term, for a small minority of patients, pacing is particularly important and pushing oneself can have difficult and even dire consequences. I don't really know how to explain how bad the pain is that results in autonomic dysfunction; I only know that most doctors and other people cannot and do not understand it. A resting heart rate of 150 is not normal! Would it be 175 without the beta blocker? Probably.

I do not mean to suggest at all that pain and suffering makes people Christlike; most of us do not choose to be in pain and take measures against it. Enduring pain does not make us better or worse than another. What I do suggest is that that we should be alert to the pain and suffering of others and do what we can to alleviate it, not increase it. I think more people should know and understand what severe pain is like. We can never fully know the experience of another, but we can approximate and understand. Pain is not something we can just overcome with mental strength or will; Christ did not overcome it but died from it. The severe anxiety that turned his sweat into blood, the beating, the falling with the cross, the betrayal, the mocking, the unjustness: vasogenic shock occurred even before the nailing.

Pain is not weakness or a failure of character. It is not shameful. It just is.

A number of people have told me that when they have become ill or disabled that some people, Christians (an atheist wouldn't say this) blame them for it, say that they must have done something wrong to deserve it. They forget about the crucifixion. They forget that in healing people, Jesus did not condemn. There was no ADA, no wheelchairs (as far as I know), no access; to be disabled was to be unable to work and to participate in daily life. Too often we are labeled as sinners and wrongdoers by those who misunderstand, by Christians and non-Christians who believe that those he healed were the worst sinners or who believe in the Law of Attraction or karma, who forget this passage:
"His disciples asked him, 'Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?' Jesus answered, 'Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him'" (John 9:1).

I also think the program holds some promise for Christians to have better understanding of the suffering of those within their congregation through understanding the Christ's suffering. Suffering comes not only through physical pain or disability; it also comes from others who mock us, blame us, abuse us, or attempt to shame us because we are disabled. Christianity is not the only religion that has been used to blame people for disability, and atheists as a group can be far easier to talk with about disability and more humane about it. This idea would surprise many. There are exceptions: the uber-fitness, we're better than weak and unhealthy people, "you can-overcome-anything with the right pill, exercise, drug, thought" line of thinking, whether based in conventional or alternative medicine, judges and insults with presumptiveness, misinformation, and poor logic. But I find spiritual and religious people (who are not themselves ill or disabled) far more likely to propagate such beliefs. It's time to correct that.

Again, pain is not weakness or a failure of character. It is not shameful.


Elizabeth McClung said...

Thank you for this talking about the program on your own added facts and comments. Certainly the Sparticus uprising with the 10,000 cruxified would not mock the cruxifiction. Once someone was branded a rebel and likely to cause an uprising, they would be turned in by their own people to avoid larger cruxifictions (as happens in the Jesus story).

I do think the level of fitness of people who were mountain shephards would give them more ability than today - I simply say this because the winners of all the early marathons for several DECADES were postmen - particularly postmen from the mediterranian. It builds endurance.

For ritual sake Jesus HAD to die before the setting of the sun in order to be the lamb offered as the sin offering when angel of death roamed in Exodus and the blood marked whose house was spared. But for reality, I am curious if the offering of drink or other things were part of the ritual of cruxification to prolong the suffering or not - it seemed this was a rush job as they wanted them all dead within a day.

The sweat to blood is actually from the Garden during the prayer where Jesus asked NOT to have to do this and said that it said the sweat came off of him as if it was blood (that has been interpreted different ways) - I guess if I saw that my life and knew what was ahead, I would be sweating like that too.

Pain is seen as a weakness in those who don't generally feel it to a higher degree - the way those who don't get cold think those who do are weak.

I knew that the stress of autonomic failure induces more failure but also taxes the body as if you have 100 counters and it takes away some every minute it exists. Yes, 150 is going for a run, not going for a lie down, and if you get tired doing a 2 hour run, then a 12 hour one tires you more, and likely causes pain. I have not been able to track any consistant pattern of pain between autonomic failure except that it exists, I believe the heart is particularly sensative to it and lungs, both being large muscles which can be oxygen deprived.

I find that I am ashamed and frustrated not to control pain. Not because others ask me to, but because others shun me, or don't know what to say so to admit to being in pain is like asking to be alone. And I don't want to be alone. And some things just have to be seen to be believed, and I think autonomic levels of pain may be one of them. Sort of like third degree burn pain. And that leaves people speechless too. If the person was running down a track, in that much pain, everyone would be cheering them on, even if it was a step at a time. But when they see it, when a person can't help but writhe and contort or being too weak, babble, moan, squeak, scream....there is no stadium cheering them on but silence and 'Thank God that isn't me.'

FridaWrites said...

Wow, I learned a lot from your comment. I did not know about the 10,000 crucifixions and will read more.

I read that someone offered him wine on a sponge while he was on the cross (I don't know whether he took it)--my husband said often people were allowed to alleviate the distress specifically because that prolonged the suffering--a terrible situation. Apparently his followers had to bury him quickly since it was the Passover, but it's possible the Romans planned it that way thinking that the crucifixion would extend into the Passover and thus leave him abandoned or force others to ignore religious law.

You're right that many see pain as weakness, stoicism as victory. My autonomic issues are secondary to pain rather than primary, as yours are, so my pain is less. I have had chest pain with it once for several days, and it's awful; pain and dysautonomia each generating more of the other.

Sometimes I feel ashamed about high pain too--or worse, shamed by the doctors who can't understand the pain-dysautonomia cycle for me, or the severe pain cycle if I push beyond a certain setpoint for my body.

When I finally told a friend that I felt abandoned and that she never replied back to me as I would to her, she said that people don't know how to handle that much pain. But neither do I.

FridaWrites said...

Oh, wait, they did talk about the people who were crucified in 70 AD--I just didn't know it was 10,000!

yanub said...

Frida, this is a thoughtful post that I'm glad you made. I'll put my comment over at my blog.

FridaWrites said...

Thanks so much, yanub.

One Sick Mother said...


This was a very interesting and thought-provoking post (and responses). Thank you.

One thing I noticed about pain -and seizures ...and dislocations um... etc. is that people seem to think there is some kind of quota or limit. If you go over that quota than you are somehow being selfish; "you are in pain AGAIN!?!" Like you somehow wanted it and can help it!

So someone who has a migraine a few times a year is treated with sympathy and respect, whereas someone with chronic intractable pain may be treated like a selfish nuisance -by the SAME person who showed such sympathy to the migraineur.

It makes no sense to me...

FridaWrites said...

Thanks, OSM. You're right--sometimes people seem to have less tolerance for pain than we do!