The Power of Pain

I was in a second grade science class when I first learned the basics of how we experience pain. The teacher was explaining how we’re lucky our bodies are equipped with nerves because if they weren’t, we couldn’t feel pain. At the time, in my 8-year-old limited understanding of the world, I thought, “Why does that make us lucky? I would love not to experience pain.” I thought she was some sort of masochist. She went on to explain, though, that pain was protective. She said that if it weren’t for our ability to feel pain, we might place our hand on a hot burner or cut our fingers and never realize the damage we were doing. We might not react with the impulse to quickly draw our hand out of harm’s way, and the damage would be so much worse. Maybe instead of a little redness or blistering, we would suffer, possibly, irrevocable damage. The kind that can’t be healed. The kind that lasts forever. 

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I had not thought about this in years until this morning. I have a little longer commute now, and during the drive, my mind wanders. I was thinking about the amount of pain I’ve gone through recently. Not physical pain, but emotional and psychological pain. The kind that seems to be somehow worse than physical suffering because there’s no outward evidence, nothing that is obviously broken, nothing that can be readily addressed. I thought about how C.S. Lewis wrote, “Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pain. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” I thought about how often I have asked him to remove it, all the while feeling it persist. For months now.

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with my therapist about hope, and she raised the question of if it might be possible that I was hoping for the wrong things. Hope can be so fragile, and so easy to squash. I told her that I had tired of hoping because it was too painful to bear when hope was lost. She asked me what I had been hoping for, and I gave her a laundry list of things, all of which had been denied at the time. She responded by asking me if there were less tangible things I could hope for. If it might be possible that I was using hope as a form of control— I wanted this specific outcome to this situation, and I didn’t get it, therefore hope is lost; she wondered if it might be more prudent to hope for things like peace. Wisdom. Even joy.

And so, instead of demanding that things go my way which, is never realistic because things seldom go the way we plan, I started to think about praying for things that fell into this category of hoping for the essence of something rather than the concrete realities. But nothing changed. It started to bother me so much, because now, even hoping for the “right things” I was finding myself disappointed, and the idea of being without any form of hope is intolerable to the human spirit. That’s even scriptural— hope deferred makes the heart sick, right? And I was getting so frustrated with the lack of progress anywhere in my thinking, and in how I felt about the state of things in my life right now.  In the background of my thoughts, I could hear the Elevation Church podcast playing through the Jeep speakers, where the message was all about how sometimes the things that cause you the most frustration are there to communicate a deeper truth. That was when the possibility settled in my mind that maybe the reason this pain can’t be taken away completely at the moment is because the pain is the answer to the questions I’ve been asking.  

I am the person with their hand on a hot burner, who has not yet withdrawn her hand, and the hand is burning, becoming damaged, its integrity threatened. The risk of permanent damage imminent. The pain can’t go away yet. The answer to my prayer for relief is no, because I haven’t learned what the pain has tried to teach me. I haven’t heeded its warning of danger, and so my life has remained in the same patterns as before. I keep asking myself why it is that I can’t just be happy like everyone else, or why it is that I can’t be satisfied with the blessings already at my disposal. Why do I long for a completely different life? And as these questions are circulating through my mind, it dawns on me that while I’ve been lamenting the unfairness of unanswered prayers, it may be that the answer to the prayer is the very thing I’ve prayed to have removed.

I want guidance. I want to know if I’ll ever be satisfied with my life the way it is. If it’s true that I just have to “give it time” and then things will sort themselves out. This morning it dawned on me that the answer to those questions might be found in the pain. It’s possible the answer is no, maybe I won’t even be satisfied with things the way they are. Maybe, because I’m not the same person I was before, I can’t be satisfied with the things that used to bring me contentment. Maybe all the while I’ve been praying these prayers, God has been waiting for me to understand what he’s shouted to me in my pain. “No, I can’t take it away, because then you will think it’s OK to continue on a side street of this same road, and that part of your life is over. I have to leave the pain so that you will learn to turn away from what is causing it, and figure out that there’s another way you can live. You’re not trapped. Your back isn’t against the wall, it’s against a door.”

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In Begin Again Leeana Tankersley writes, “I am at the point in the hero’s journey that is known as ‘the wall.’ I will see the wall as a door, or I will come to it and see it as a wall and turn and walk away. Whatever my response— resentment, contempt, blame-shifting, fear, hope, possibility, trust that I have been brought to this wall for a reason— will reflect my seeing, Door or wall.” She’s referencing a poem by Fr. Frances Dorf, quoted in the beginning of the same book. “I’ll know I’ve been raised from the dead when everything becomes a door…”

I’ve been hoping for the wrong things. Hoping for the absence of pain, But the pain has more to say with its presence than its absence ever could. I have no idea what happens next, but I do know it won’t be more of the same. It can’t be. I’m finally listening.

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