I read a story once about a girl who was born without the ability to feel pain. Normal things like cuts and scrapes would go totally unnoticed. She lacked the ability to tell the difference between cold and hot, or to retract her hand after touching something she shouldn’t have. Apparently, this is an extremely rare condition in humans.
This girl was apparently so immune to pain that her mother and father accidentally burned her in the bathtub when she was a baby and that’s how they discovered she had this condition. The hot water never caused her any discomfort; it never triggered any kind of response. Prior to being diagnosed, her parents had no idea they were hurting her.
As the girl grew older, she had to be constantly looked over. Some days she would show up from playing outside with her friends, bleeding all over her clothes but totally unaware that she had been injured. She spent weeks covered in terrible bruises that she never knew she’d received.
After years of living life this way, the girl’s parents began to pray every night that their daughter might one day wake up and feel pain again. They prayed she would feel pain so that she could live a full life. They prayed for pain to come their daughter and create for her a safer life. A strange prayer, indeed.
Pain is horrible and perhaps hurts us most when the ones we love are experiencing it. Which of us wouldn’t rather be on the surgeon’s table ourselves instead of watching a parent, or a child, or a spouse endure such suffering? Pain is no one’s friend. It is merciless and cruel.
And yet, by totally removing the experience of pain away from ourselves and from others, we would be subjected to an even deeper torture. Pain is nature’s most effective learning instrument. Because of pain and the responses it triggers, we avoid dangers, we live longer, and we stay healthier. Pain is everyone’s friend. Without it we wouldn’t survive.
It is no coincidence that in our culture today, we are just as private and locked up inside about our pains as we are our pleasures. Pleasure and pain make people uncomfortable when talked about openly because they are deeply connected and rooted in a total body experience. So like our pleasures, we privatize our pain and tuck it away, keeping it out of plain sight.
We keep our pain heavily sedated. Over 50 million antidepressants and anti-anxiety pills are taken in our country every day. Approximately 10 million gallons of alcohol are consumed in America every day. By the time the sun goes down today, Americans will have smoked 29 metric tons of marijuana. Today, our country will snort one metric ton of cocaine. America makes up only 5 percent of the world population and yet consumes over 80 percent of its pain meds. And that number has been growing by about 7 percent per year.
Western civilization seems to have real difficulty letting pain be pain, and personally, I believe we are made weaker for it. Like that child suffering burns in the bathtub, we have sedated ourselves to the point of endangering all that is best and brightest inside us.
I am not suggesting we dump all the Tylenol out of the cabinet or start berating people who are suffering from terrible disorders like depression and anxiety. But a quick look around reveals that we are terribly out of balance when it comes to letting our pain be pain.
I take a biblical perspective on pain and see in Jesus the following instructions for letting pain be pain from Mark 8:31-34.
- Pain is not to be privatized. Notice that Jesus says openly and honestly that he will suffer many things. Private pain will drive us further and further into madness: into sedatives, sex, and shopping as a means to cope. Sharing our pain will bring us to embrace each other as fully human, fully aware, fully alive partners on this journey. Sharing pain promotes community and pushes us toward both human and spiritual solutions.
- Not all pain should be prevented. Peter’s first response to Jesus’ public admission of pain is to try and stop it. Sometimes, that is our first response as well. As parents, would we ever allow our children to skip their vaccinations just because the needle prick hurt a bit? Some pain, certainly not all pain, but some of it, does in fact serve a greater good.
- Pain should not be without purpose. Taking up a cross is pain with a purpose. No one is asked to sit and wallow in self-pity and pain. Nobody gets to wear pain on their shirt sleeve like some badge of honor. This kind of pain has purpose—we are going someplace together. We have a goal. And that goal is to pass through it to the other side.
Someone once said that “pain is the fuel we burn on the path to beauty.” I believe this is true. I have simply seen it proven to many times not to wholeheartedly believe it. Nature proves this to be true (and I would like to return with a follow-up article about this) and we know this is also true in art. As W. Somerset Maugham writes in his novel, “The Moon & Sixpence”:
“Why should you think that beauty, which is the most precious thing in the world, lies like a stone on the beach for the careless passer-by to pick up idly? Beauty is something wonderful and strange that the Artist fashions out of the chaos of the world in the torment of his soul. And when he has made it, it is not given to all to know it. To recognize it you must repeat the adventure of the Artist.”
For me, the cross of Christ is the quintessential work of art in human history. The medium it uses to create with is our very lives. To repeat the journey of the artist is not for the careless passer-by. To experience the beauty of it is to let our pain be pain. And to, as the master instructs, “take up our own cross” and follow.
David Allred is the lead pastor of High Places Community Church at 123 Randolph Road in Oak Ridge, and he works alongside founding pastor Martin Fischer. High Places owns and operates the historic Grove Theater, which is also home to numerous Arts organizations who share a vision for improving quality of life in Oak Ridge. For more information, see http://highplaceschurch.com.