Making Friends with Pain

By December 22, 2008 culture, faith No Comments

When it comes to pain, I’m not a fan. Pain seems like the proverbial bully, and I am the punching bag. I reroute my life to avoid the bully, but sometimes I can’t outrun him, and he finds me.

Now that I’m well into adulthood, however, I think it’s time I got some courage and fortitude and stopped giving so much of my energy to this bully.

One of my favorite Jennifer Knapp songs (“Martyrs and Thieves”) has a haunting line that fits here: “There are ghosts from my past that own more of my soul than I thought I had given away; they linger in closets and under my bed and in pictures less proudly displayed.”

Yes, I have given more of my soul to this avoidance than it deserves.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Dr. Paul Brand’s book The Gift of Pain—written with Philip Yancey—provides fascinating insight into the glorious nature of pain and God’s purpose for installing it into our systems.

Dr. Brand doesn’t discount pain’s bullying nature, but he does reframe the bully’s motive: Pain is a warning system meant to lead us to health. Sometimes it does have a mean voice and a strong arm; but those are wielded to keep us from further harm. However scary and painful these signals may be, they are meant for our good.

The path to health, for an individual or a society, must begin by taking pain into account. Instead, we silence pain when we should be straining our ears to hear it; we eat too fast and too much and take a seltzer; we work too long and too hard and take a tranquilizer. (Paul Brand and Philip Yancey, The Gift of Pain, [Michigan: ZondervanPublishingHouse, 1997], 227)

Our desire to silence pain’s signals often only leads to additional pain. We medicate to medicate symptoms from our medications, and then wonder why we feel disconnected or foggy or lifeless.

Before reading Dr. Brand’s book, I thought that the opposite of pain was pleasure; in reality, pleasure and pain reside at the same end of the spectrum. At the opposing end of the spectrum is death or lifelessness. This is proven in the lives of leprosy victims (the focus of Dr. Brand’s life work), who feel no pain. The absence of pain brings not pleasure, but a numb disconnection that makes their actions robotic and mechanical.

A person who never feels pain is task-oriented, whereas a person who has an intact pain system is self-oriented. The painless person may know . . . that a certain action is harmful, but if he really wants to, he does it anyway. The pain-sensitive person, no matter how much he wants to do something, will stop for pain, because deep in his psyche he knows that preserving his own self is more significant than anything he might want to do. (ibid., 195)

Pain and pleasure work in tandem; you cannot have one without the other. Any of our human attempts to extract pleasure and discard pain leaves us task-oriented, unfeeling, and robotic. Pain reminds us we are alive and keeps us seeking health and safety.

That’s a signal that should never be silenced.

I hope I can remember that pain is my friend the next time I encounter him.

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