Faith

The Problem of Pain (and what to do about it)


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Among the many questions with which we must wrestle in this life, two of the biggest are, “How do I respond to my pain?” and “How do I respond to the pain of others?”

Our responses determine our view of just about everything else: whether or not we believe in God, what we think of him if we do, how we interact with our families, even the extent to which we are satisfied or happy with our lives.  It is a cruel truth that responding to pain in an unhealthy way, any unhealthy way, will actually make that pain worse, or create a new kind of pain.

This is why so many people just avoid pain altogether—their own and that of others.  Ironically, they have a kind of wisdom: that if so many of the potential options are ill-fated, then it is perhaps better to choose to do nothing.  Of course, this crumbles under examination, because it fails to address the initial pain.

For that is the common denominator of the human condition: that all of us, regardless of station or gift or persuasion, will experience pain.

Too many times, we ask the wrong question.  When we experience pain, we ask “Why?” in an effort to understand the reason or purpose behind what we are facing.  But the question we should be asking is “What?”  What must I do, or not do, in this situation, with this pain, with these people?  That, I contend, is the place where peace and healing reside.

So what do we do with our own pain?  Some of us turn it into something else, and instead of grieving, for example, we become angry, or self-critical, or hurtful to ourselves or others.  Some of us take it on and become overwhelmed by it, leading to depression or despair.  Some of us self-medicate, looking for anything, everything, that will give us some kind of relief from having to feel or think about that which ails us.

The ash heap is uncomfortable.  It is no wonder we avoid it, sometimes at all costs.

But what should we do?  What can we do?

I will not speak for others, but the defining moments in my own life and my own pain have come, without exception, from moving toward my pain instead of away from it.  For years I turned it into anger, and used it to fuel achievement and striving.  I had a counselor tell me that anger is not a pure emotion—that it always masks something else—once I realized this truth, and that converting my pain to anger did not bring awareness, peace, or healing, I was free to get into the real work of journeying through my pain.

That did not make it easier.

But it did make it possible.

Many years of moving toward pain later, I have neither insight nor authority to share beyond what I borrow from James: that pain develops perseverance, and perseverance leads to maturity.

This in itself is enough, but I think we can be forgiven for seeing it as a bit of a letdown.  All that for maturity?  Surely another way exists.

It is not just our own maturity, though.  What do we do with our own pain is only one question.  We must also come to what we do with the pain of others if our lives are to find expression and fulfillment.  And it is in this that our pain’s true worth exists (Yes, pain has worth—inestimable worth—again from James, to the point of joy).

We cannot heal ourselves.  Rather, what we do with our own pain is to endure, to gain patience, to assume a posture and recognize our place.  But having done that, the gift of pain is that we can heal others.

“Carry one another’s burdens…”  “Weep with those who weep; mourn with those who mourn…”  These actions heal.  Miraculously and inexplicably, the presence of peace exists with those who have moved toward their pain, not to overcome it as one climbs a mountain, but to know it and recognize it, and fear it no longer, neither in themselves nor others.

Moving toward our pain enables us to move toward others who are in pain.  Like the first responders we admire for going into danger when the rest of us are running away from it, our own pain, addressed, gives us courage to move toward pain wherever it exists.

I am such a person, but I hate doing this.

I like being strong, certain, determined.  I don’t like crying; I don’t like feeling helpless or lacking control.  Pain, whether it is mine or anyone else’s, wrecks all of that.

This week, people I love have been in pain physically, relationally, even organizationally.  As I move toward that pain, the scars of my own pain, and the mistakes I made with it, rush to the surface.  I want to convert it all to anger and confront.

Until peace has its say.  And peace always asks the Dr. Phil question: “How is that working for you?”  And then peace invites me to sit a while.  After those moments, my pain becomes my power, because it enables me to move toward the ones I love in peace, with no agenda other than to bring the presence of peace.  I have insights; I have questions, but those can come in their time.

For now, peace.

For the response to the questions, “How do I respond to my pain?” and “How do I respond to the pain of others?” must only and ever be that which brings peace, that which brings healing.  We cannot heal ourselves, and so we must persevere, but we can heal others, and so we must move toward them.  Carry burdens.  Mourn.  Weep.

I hate this, but until the day when perfect peace comes, I choose to be a healer.

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