When I woke up this morning, I had an incredible vision of multitudes of people finding strength of spirit that overcomes obstacles and transcends pain and suffering. I imagined people finding the liberating power of perseverance and discovering a strength they didn’t know they had.
Each August I spend time looking at issues of wellness, and it seems that at this time I always have some quirky injury just in time for me to speak from personal experience. It’s my labor of love. This year is no exception. I took the family to an indoor water park up in Boyne a few weeks back. I forgot my age and went indoor surfing. I made such a spectacle of myself, tumbling all over the place that they had to stop the water to get me off. I then had to take the walk of shame through the crowd of snickering 12 year old boys and pretend I was fine. Once I was clear of view, I surrendered to the pain of my left foot that had been twisted in the fall.
Two days later, and back home, I took myself off to the Emergency Room to make sure I hadn’t broken anything in my foot. As I waited in one cubicle with my sore foot a woman was wheeled in next to me amidst high drama. She was traumatized and barely coherent as she told nurses and police her story. She had been abused and drugged by her husband, rescued by a friend and brought to the ER. It was a heartbreaking story, and in the context of this poor woman’s situation my sore foot started to feel quite trivial. I felt like quietly leaving and saying, “Give this woman all your attention. Don’t worry. I’ll be fine. I have another foot.”
Pain and suffering is so relative isn’t it? It’s like the saying, “I used to complain because I had flat feet until I met a man with no feet.” As I reflect on the various aches and pains in my arms and legs, I think about the Australian man (Nick Vujicic) who was born without arms or legs. He travels the world motivating young people to live with gratitude and passion and to transcend any physical limitations. He finds humor and inspiration in his situation. The world needs more of his attitude.
You will be glad to know that there is nothing broken in my foot, but I have prepared these thoughts on pain through gritted teeth. Of course my small pain is nothing compared to what many people experience chronically and on a daily basis. I want to offer some inspiration to those with chronic pain, and those with occasional pain to honestly express your pain but not to let it own you.
Here is my thought. We’ve been given a bum steer when it comes to pain and suffering. We find ourselves caught in the middle between a religion that overemphasizes suffering, and a society that is in denial about pain. Let me explain.
Christianity- No Pain, No Gain
Many of us grew up with a version of Christianity that taught that without Jesus’ suffering, we would never be saved from the judgment of God. We were told, “It should have been us.” It’s an oppressive thought isn’t it? This view of Jesus’ death led to a worldview that said, “Someone has to pay” and “No pain no gain.” It’s the basis of the Protestant work ethic. Suffer for Jesus. The more pain you experience in this world, the more reward you will get in the next world.
See if this scenario resonates for some of you. I’m at my chiropractor with a bad back. I’ve been adjusted and pressure points have been applied. I stand up after the session and feel great. I begin to stretch and twist. I turn one way and then the other. I lean forward and lean back. The chiropractor says to me, “What are you doing?” I say, “I’m looking for the pain.”
Looking for the pain? I twist myself into a pretzel shape in search of a pain that has just been removed. Do I need pain to feel truly alive? Do I need to suffer to purge myself of guilt for not being perfect?
We are told that only one who is perfect can pay the price. The cross becomes a symbol of innocent suffering to satisfy the impossible demands of a judging sky God. If I’m not suffering enough, I will go out and search for pain to remind myself that I am guilty and rotten to the core. It’s a philosophy that says, “I limp therefore I am.”
There’s another way, and in my opinion it’s a more empowering way to live. Let this thought sink deep into your psyche because you have to combat many years of “no pain no gain” thinking. Every beautiful thing in the world, every meaningful moment, every act of kindness, every gratitude, every expression of love- you helped to create all of it. You are a part of God, a co-creator of life. You search for pain and drama because you’ve forgotten who you are, and it’s no wonder when for so long you have been told that you are separate from God.
You don’t have to suffer to appease God. You don’t need to be forgiven. You just need to remember who you are. You don’t have to suffer to find the embrace of the God of your understanding. This God is as close as your next breath, as you breathe in joy and breathe out peace. This was always the case. You just forget from time to time. This is not to say that suffering and pain don’t serve a purpose in your life. They most certainly do. It’s just that suffering and pain are not preconditions of grace. You are alive. Your life is an original blessing. You are accepted as you are.
While the traditional religious response encourages an unhealthy attachment to pain, our modern culture has created the very opposite problem. While our religious traditions continue to teach the necessity of pain, modern science is busy masking pain. Whether it’s a head ache, a heart ache or a foot ache, we have created a way to mask pain so that we can live in denial. When it comes to pain, we have a new mantra, “If you can afford it, you can deny it.”
There a new drug in development that will attempt to eradicate all pain. It is using research gained from people who “suffer” the rare condition of being unable to feel pain. I say suffer because what seems like a blessing is in reality a life threatening condition. One child with this condition died on his birthday when he jumped off the roof of his house showing off to his friends. Another child had a broken jaw and no one knew until she developed a fever from the infection. So I’m curious to know where a wonder pill that eradicates pain would leave us without the essential warning signs of pain.
This is a trivial example, but this past Monday my foot was really sore. I hadn’t taken any pain medication or anti inflammatories at this point. I was suffering silently for Jesus- well fairly silently (just ask my family). I thought I could keep working as long as I had my foot elevated. The pain kept getting worse until I could no longer ignore it. I surrendered to pain’s wisdom, stopped work and completely rested.
Pain is part of your body’s sacred wisdom. Listen to her. She could be telling you to take it easy, or slow down or maybe to seek professional help. These are some of pain’s immediate messages. Pain also offers important spiritual lessons about perspective. Pain teaches you about change and impermanence and reminds you not to take your health for granted. Pain reminds you that at certain points in life you simply have to surrender to the great unknown, let go and let yourself heal.
Pain is important. It’s not necessary to suffer to prove anything, but pain is an important teacher. So a healthy response to pain is somewhere in between religion’s overemphasis on pain and modern society’s denial of pain. Pain is not a problem to be solved as much as it’s an experience to be explored.
Lets turn to the blues for some more clues. The lesson from blues music is that it’s better to express it than suppress it. If you’re feeling it, turn it into a song or a poem or a nameless groan. Did you know that blues music is biblical? There are loads of examples in the Hebrew Psalms of people singing the blues. Then there is the classic blues lines of all time from Jesus on the cross – “My God my God why have you forsaken me?”
The point of expressing misery is not to wallow in self pity but to liberate the pain. There’s something therapeutic about telling it how it is, letting it all out. There’s an amazing release from expressing emotions. It’s as if you are creating a tolerable distance between yourself and the pain. You hold it apart from yourself, as if to say “this pain is not going to own me. I am not a victim of pain. I can manage pain and learn from it and it will NOT break me.” Once you have separated the pain from yourself, even for a time, you can take a larger perspective and remind yourself that you have survived times like this before and you will do it again. Claim your own strength.
When you sing the blues, you gain the perspective that pain is a relative experience. You remind yourself that you can have other experiences and emotions alongside pain. Pain doesn’t control you. There is a big difference between pain and suffering. When you suffer you are always in pain. When you are in pain, you aren’t necessarily suffering. You can manage pain without adding to the drama by catastrophizing or comparing your fortunes. So much suffering comes from wishing reality were different. Singing the blues helps you to accept what is, learn from it, and liberate it.
Pain and Growth
There is a classic old Jewish story called the Sorrow Tree. The world became filled with complaints and moaning. People began comparing their misery and sadness. They became convinced that their pain was undeserved and more traumatic than anyone else’s pain. Each person was trying to sing the blues louder than everyone else. It was desperate and woeful. So God created a Sorrow Tree. People were invited to come to the Sorrow Tree and exchange their woes. Each person packed up their troubles in an old kit bag and hung them on a branch of the Sorrow Tree. They then took someone else’s bag of troubles- one that looked lighter and more manageable. At first this seemed like a great idea. But over time each person ended up going back to their own troubles. Better the sorrow you know. It turned out to be almost impossible to deal with someone else’s pain. Their pain was for them, and yours is for you.
Think of your life as a tree. Your tree is made up of all your unique life experience, including the joys and sorrows. You can’t live anyone else life, and no one can lives yours. If you cut off the pain and pretend it’s not part of the tree, you might damage the whole tree. Your life is one piece. It has its seasons, leaves rise and fall. Honor it all and wear it all loosely for it is all changing all the time. In every one of your sadness’s and pains lies the seed of new possibility.
If you are living with chronic pain, as hard it is, express it and let it be one part (but not all) of the fabric of your life. It gives you your determination in so many other areas of life. It unlocks incredible creativity and strength. If you living with the pain of loss, as heart wrenching as it is, it is now part of the fabric of who you are. You are stronger for the experience and you have new compassion for suffering. Your pain is preparing you for some greater work in the world.
Beyond comparisons and perceived injustice, your life has its own beautiful seasons. Your experience has made you who you are, and your pain has given you a strength and compassion that you didn’t know you had. You cannot be broken.
So what are the blues clues in your life? What is pain preparing you for in the world?
I honor your unique and specific journey. I honor your sadness and your joys. I respect the growth, the courage, and the strength that is growing in you in every moment and through every experience.
From the place in me that can overcome any obstacle, from a limp to a loss, I honor the place in you which is stronger than pain, and greater than any sadness. Namaste.
Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow by Elizabeth Lesser