Pain and the Possible Gain

It is often said “No Pain, no Gain.” But I’d like to propose that along with that saying comes the mindset that to feel pain is to feel weakness leaving the body. I have definitely seen variations of that idea written on the back of multiple sports player’s t-shirts and cringed every time.

So which is it? Can pain be dignifying or is it something that one must hide?

There’s an inherent problem with this saying. It glorifies pain as something that we ought to strive for because it will make us stronger. But there is another saying, and this one is not written out for us like the others. That saying goes something like this: “If you’re in pain, do not let anyone else know because it will show that you are weak. “

For starters, I’d like to classify what types of pain we will feel in life. Let’s start by splitting this up into two simple categories: good pain and bad pain.

Good pain is the pain that tears down in order to rebuild something stronger. A practical example of this is how our muscles work: it hurts to tear them when you work out, but once they are healed they have grown back stronger. This pain is something in which we can pride ourselves. Athletes even roar in pain as they finish races, communicating to others that they are in pain while showing that they are overcoming it.

This rebuilding pain also occurs not just physically: it can also be mental or emotional. Sometimes we must go through new experiences in life and learn new things. The pain of failure can break us down, but to overcome a failure makes one even more successful. What has been torn down is made into something even better.

This is a pain can be likened to that of Dante’s Purgatory; while it is painful for the individuals to climb up the mountain and be refined by the fire, the pain is worth the end. Being refined only makes them stronger and we see an aspect of redemption in this pain as they reach an end goal.

It is what I called bad pain that does not allow for this rebuilding. This is the type of pain that tears down and does not readily heal to any profit. It is that pain that is felt when you scrape your knee, lose a loved one or remain defeated by the troubles of life. It is a pain that can dwell with us for a very long time if we do not learn how to throw it off of ourselves.

When we are told that we ought to hide our pain, our loneliness, our depression or our losses, we learn to dwell in the pain rather than leave it behind. To remain in pain that does not refine is not beneficial; rather we can leave pain in the past by turning it into a pain that will help grow and rebuild us.

There is no entrance into the rebuilding until we learn to share our pain. For it is only by sharing that we are given a different perspective on our personal pain. In community we can find both remedy and empathy.

If we do not share our pain there is no way to find a remedy. In a hospital, if a surgery patient is in pain, that patient must communicate their pain to the nurse in order to receive relief. Only then can the patient receive a remedy–in this case a type of pain reliever. Only once that remedy is administered can the recovering patient feel better and even go through a proper pain that comes with exertion for something like physical therapy. But none of this would have happened if the patient remained silent and never communicated their pain.

By sharing a persistent and degenerative pain with someone else, it can be turned into a rebuilding pain that comes to an end.

There is remedy in the act of sharing. The sharing could lead to something as simple as immediate physical pain relief, or it could be the actual sharing of a painful experience that heals.

But like I said, it’s harder to share than we think. We do not feel that others will entertain our struggles or understand them.

So here’s the bright side for a Christian: they have God. God, who will always listen, always sympathize, and always offer a remedy. That is enough, but we are also meant to live in community. Members of the church are called to be that love, understanding and remedy to other members. We are to bear each other’s’ burdens.

Sometimes God alone is enough, but more often than not God will show himself through the community that He brings us to in a time of pain. This is the community where we can share pain, be uplifted by the stories of those who have gone before us and see from a different light that we too will make it through the pain and put it behind us. But we can only find those who can encourage and empathize by first sharing with them.

It is through sharing that the church can gather around a hurting member and know how to help them as best as they can on the path to restoration.

Government Shutdowns: Moments of Insanity?

We should stop criticizing government shutdowns and start thinking about what the shutdowns tell us.

Our government inflicts us with pain all the time.  The recent government shutdown is the most accessible example of such pain.  This kind of discomfort is so repulsive because it happens without our consent, which leads us to mistrust the responsiveness of our American government.  And for good reason:

In a shutdown, well over 800,000 non-essential federal employees don’t know when they’ll receive their next paycheck.  In turn, the rest of us are left to deal with life under a temporarily incompetent, unresponsive federal government.  A lot of uncomfortable stuff happens and the government doesn’t seem to care.

We think situations like these shouldn’t happen in America.  If a government is by the people and for the people, as Lincoln pointed out, the people should never be angry about what the government does.  It should people-please; yet the vast majority of people aren’t pleased with government shutdowns.

Why do shutdowns like this happen in America?

A shutdown happens when Congress cannot agree on a budget before the start of the new fiscal year.    The Constitution and the law do not punish the government if it inconveniences the people with a shutdown.   Instead, Congressmen, as essential employees, still get paid.  And they are still given the responsibility to pass the budget.

The idea is, in a representative government, the representatives do not need legal punishment.  The ballot box is the Congressional cattle-prod.  All Congressmen, unless considering retirement, want to keep their jobs: they either enjoy the distinction that comes with it or want to continue their good influence in Congress.  Sure, legislators must respond well to organized interests who have lots of money, but at the end of the day, the right votes, not the right number of dollars, keeps someone in office.  The one sure way to keep their jobs is to pay attention to the input, opinions, and demands of their constituents.  A representative who does not have one eye in Washington and the other in his district is sure to jeopardize his seat.  So, they need no legal repercussions; we as voters also serve as the punishers.

This accountability mechanism, termed the ‘electoral incentive,’ means that if the representative does stuff in office that his voters disapprove of, it will show in the next election — with his unemployment.  With this in mind, the budget deadlock we just witnessed shows that some Congressmen held to the deep-seated conviction that a shutdown is better than its alternative (in this case, ObamaCare fully-funded), risking their seats in the process.

Does a shutdown like the one we just experienced successfully prevent its alternative?

Americans surely don’t think so: they tend to blame those on the other side for the pain they feel.  They ignore the risky signaling that’s taking place, and consider partisan actions that eventually force a shutdown rash, imprudent, and hopeless.

Americans in general agree that Congress was most to blame during the shutdown, which lessens Congress’ power to be successful.  Shutdown polls declare that the people blamed Republicans rather than Democrats and President Obama.  But notice that the polls tend to lump President Obama and Democrats into one category, which does not account for the consistently higher approval ratings of the President with respect to Congress.  In the end, Congress, not the president, will seem even more blameworthy.

With success falling out of sight, what were Republicans in Congress thinking by forcing a shutdown?  What response were they trying to invoke?

All government shutdowns anticipate pain and anger, but they communicate gravity. A shutdown communicates that the alternative is a more painful than itself. If we feel pains, we should assume something significant is happening.

Even further, In light of the fact that the Republican Party forced a similar government shutdown in 1995, when conditions were better, and had to deal with heavy repercussions, it is safe to assume that Republicans are definitely risking similarly punishing outcomes.  They have communicated a grave issue indeed.

Perhaps the gravity of the situation ran deeper than funding or defunding ObamaCare.  Perhaps they feared that such a law will instill dangerous ideas about the nature and purpose of health insurance.  Or, beyond health insurance, they feared that the law will feed the growing appetite for entitlements and instantaneous gratification that threatens the generous and selfless side of today’s America.

Must we merely complain about our pain?  No.  We should listen to the problem the pain communicates.  Look beyond the discomfort to its source; then consider why the cause is weighty enough to inflict the pain you feel.

In American government, pain is not weakness leaving the body.  The pain leaving the legislative body (and coming down to us) signals graver, more threatening, weaknesses in ourselves and our nation.

The Lessons Learned through Suffering

Since I can’t send this to my own 2010 self, I’ll open it up to everyone else

Dear Pre-Suffering Self,

Thank you for going through everything you’re about to go through; it’s going to suck. You’re going to feel the fire and regret and loss of being human. You’re going to weep. You’ll wish you could stay in bed all day. It’ll overwhelm you: you’ll find yourself hating your life, yourself, your choices. You’re going to go through every negative feeling imaginable.

But, you’re going to keep waking up, going to work and class, going to church. You’re going to fail and fall down again and again and again, collapsing in tears and loneliness, until finally you learn that only God can pick you up. You’ll find yourself unable to do anything but pray for hours on end. You’re going to suffer, to be chastened, and you’re going to grow.

And, when you’ve gone through it, you’ll know what matters and what doesn’t. Where you had pride and confusion, you’ll grow humility and clarity. You’ll learn to ask for help and figure out your limitations. You’re going to find out that those limitations are what make you you and God God. That will become very comforting.

So, thank you for going through all this so that I can be who I am and know what I know, as your own future, post-suffering self. The amazing thing is, the whole time you’ll be praying and struggling and learning, you won’t even be confident I exist. You’ll never quite believe there will be a post-suffering you until you become me. If you could know that, I think it would be easier.

I wish I could convince you that one day, you’re going to walk into a coffee shop and someone you don’t even know will comment on how remarkably happy you look. And, it will be true: there won’t be a more contented person than you in any room that you enter. You’ll have a hard-won smile, bought with weeped darkness and painful hours. All those months of soreness chiseling the flabby bits off your soul will leave a cool, resolute peace. The personality that remains will be a lean personality, fit and ready. For the first time, you will begin to become patient, joyful, generous, strong, humble, and gracious, all learned through suffering.

You’ll discover that what you once called “joy” was always tainted with fear; it rested on shaky supports. Those things are all about to be pulled back like a curtain. The bright light that blasts through, shriveling up all your false supports and half joys, will threaten to blind you. It’s Christ, and he’ll do the opposite, and he will do it cleanly and fully. But, it will be a surgery and a flame, and you will learn that great phrase: “Our only hope (or else despair), lies in the choice of pyre or pyre: to be redeemed from fire by fire.”

You’ll fall into the arms of Christ, because you won’t be strong enough to stand. You’ll whimper, “You must do this. I cannot.” And, your tear-cleaned eyes fixed on Christ will detect close-up textures and features that startle and upset you; he’ll look different than you remembered from your soft days. Until now, he’s always patiently let you play with the little images of him you hand-picked out of your favorite Scriptures and your favorite virtues and your favorite sermons. But, he’s about to teach you that you don’t get to choose the Christ who welcomes the children without choosing the Christ who flings tables in the temples. And, he’s about to remind you that you need the table-flinging Christ, because you – temple of Christ – have weighed yourself down with idols, and they’re crushing you. For years, you’ve approached theological arguments with proud and pious discernment, thinking you’ll be the judge of their virtue; and, for the first time in your life, they’ll turn the tables and you’ll realize that you’re the one being judged. And, naked and vulnerable, you’ve been found wanting.

Once, you might have run away from this unbearably objective God; now, you have no where else to turn. 

You’ll be all alone in a room with the God you’ve always said you loved, and you’ll realize one of you needs to change for this relationship to work. One of you. And he’ll kindly ask you: Are you willing?

You’ll realize that the thing that you were trying to force God to remain was not a God big enough for all your injuries. Discovery: the radical, wild ways He wants to behave are the only ways that can save you from death. It turns out you disagree with him and that he sometimes makes you feel very, very uncomfortable. The moment of clarity comes when you realize that’s a problem with yourself, and not with him. Once you resolve to change yourself around Christ, instead of hoping he’ll change himself around you, the surgery will start. The Doctor is working. That doesn’t keep the pain from being painful. You’re still going to hurt a lot, and I do and I will. But, I’ll hurt with less fear. Your first fearful steps into the shallow end will start my journey toward the deep end. There, walking beside Christ, we’ll experience that gorgeous paradox of increasing danger and decreasing fear.

One day, you’ll hear people share their fears, and the fears will sound foreign, like a language you’ve almost forgotten. How could I fear car accidents, if they would send me to heaven in God’s timing? How could I be afraid of never getting married; if God wants me to marry, won’t it happen? How could I fear abandonment when Christ will never abandon me? Little fears will wander around, but the only thing you’ll fear deeply is your own ability to turn from Christ. And, that fear will keep you praying, and that prayer will keep you from all the other fears. You’ll know, when fears creep back in, that it’s time to pray more. And, when you pray, you’ll feel the fears shrink back, and the cool, hard-won peace of the cross will help you through the sufferings that will always continue. (Yes, the cross: the truth is, most of the suffering that won my peace won’t even be borne by you.)

But, I wouldn’t know this if you didn’t go through the things you’re about to go through. So, thank you. I know this isn’t going to be easy for you. Thank you, thank you for going through all these lessons and all this discipline so I can know this. Thank you for the mornings you’ll choose to get out of bed when you just don’t want to face the world. Thank you for the hours you’re going to spend praying. Thank you for the Sundays you’ll go to church. Thank you for enduring. Thank you for wrestling through the hard times and offering the one thing you can actually offer – obedience – by which you will make it possible for me to start becoming the most content of all creatures.

I won’t say it won’t hurt. It will. All I can say is this: thank you. I’m so glad to know all the things you made it possible for me to learn. And, I would do it again. In fact, I know I will.

Under the mercy,

Your Post-Suffering Self

Enhanced by Zemanta