Understanding the Voice of Pain

Time for a long, rambling bit of pop psychology. I am much more comfortable thinking of the big-picture mysteries, but there is a valid claim against that. While I happily affirm and declare that every point of theology and doctrine has implications as to how we must live, that does not mean that we (and I) will actually make the connection. It’s one thing to take good notes in the lecture hall, but if I can’t get the project to work right in the lab section, I probably did not understand it as well as I thought. Real life is where the theology is lived out. This is where it happens.======

I have noticed both in myself and others a linking of experience and interpretation, bound in lock-step, where they should not be linked. Indeed, I am surprised that we and I do it so readily, almost automatically as first response.

The first condition is the experience of pain; emotional, spiritual or physical. As I try to think through what I want to say, I find it almost impossible to confine myself to a few sentences. But that is probably OK. You know about pain. Everyone does.

Oddly enough, I think I have learned more about pain through listening to the pain of others (not primarily to their descriptions of pain, but through their responses to it), than I have through contemplating my own. Perhaps that is because the experience of pain is so primal that it does not connect well to the parts of my brain that think and reason.

We have a system of concentric circles of “me,” sort of like those Russian matryoshka dolls where inside one figure is whole series of identical figures in successively smaller sizes, each one in some way more central than her larger encasement.  My living pattern, clothing, home, activity list, hairstyle etc., is one of the outer shells of what I understand as “me.” My physical body is a good bit further in. To lose a professional identity is a threat to “me.” So, on a more central shell, is an amputation. The issue is one of the intensity of the loss threatened, not the basic character of that threat. Things that happen in my mind, my awareness, my ability to think and perceive are much more central to what I understand as “me.” Dementia is far more frightening to me than is any loss of a simply physical part of my body.

But perhaps very near the core of our identity is the part of us that experiences pain. I can think all I wish, but intense pain seems to arise much more from the center of my being, from the “truth” of me than do any thoughts. Perhaps this is another way of saying that one of the more powerful gifts of thought is the ability to step back from myself, to see myself from at least a little bit of a different perspective, and interpret events in a way that does not assume I am the center of all things. Pain has no such ability. It speaks from my center, from THE center. Like the God of Israel told Moses, my name is “I AM.” Pain makes that same claim. It simply is.

I have heard, and believe, that pain is a great teacher. In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis called it “God’s megaphone.” It would both break my heart and set me quivering in my boots to disagree strongly with the man who has been the source of so much of what I know, even of how to know. But if listening to pain is like listening to a megaphone, it is listening to a megaphone held up to my ear. It certainly gets my attention, but I cannot understand a word. Pain is like that. Understanding takes thought, and it takes reflection and interpretation. Understanding the message in the pain takes the humility to deny pain its claim as the center, its claim to be the fundamental truth. It’s not easy.

The second condition I spoke of is exactly this task of interpretation. “I hear this pain screaming at me. What is it I am supposed to understand?” Sometimes it isn’t too hard – I understand that I should not touch the hot stove. Other times, it is harder. If my pain arises from interaction with someone else, my pain screams from its natural place in the center that I am a victim. Some of us, like me, are so opposed to this claim that we run straightway to the opposite error, that it is “all my fault.” Either acquiescing to the claim of pain, or banishing pain from any thought about truth is a serious error

I said it’s not easy. It’s not easy because pain is so assertive that it wants to rule the discussion. It rules, or we banish it. But if I banish it, I lose the voice of this great, God-given but megalomaniacal teacher. It will be difficult or impossible to really understand, if I fall into either error. The voice of pain must be tamed. But it must be heard.

When dealing with the pain of other people(no, strike that – I cannot deal with the pain of another person, only they can do that); when I deal with other people in the midst of their pain, I often fall into on extreme or the other. Since my own error is to say to pain “shut UP! I’m TRYING TO THINK!” (and of course, come to huge misunderstandings by this error!), I started out by simply repeating this – I apply this same error to other people. “The way you need to think about this is…” and “don’t you see that he…” Not a good plan.

After I started getting a clue, I decided I should make the opposite mistake, and listen totally to the pain, and avoid thinking at all. Just “validate” the sufferer, and the pain. Still a path to error, but probably better than the first in that it may help someone else tame the voice of the pain so that they can then think. But there are two problems into which this has led me.

The first is that by attempting to only validate the pain, I have seen that I am also validating its claim to the throne – “I AM THE CENTER – AND I HAVE BEEN WOUNDED. I AM A VICTIM”  The fact that pain positively roars and screams that this is so, does not mean that it is the truth. But when pain is simply validated, so is its claim.

The other error is this: by caring only about the pain, I myself can start to believe its voice. Even if I don’t want to set myself up as a judge over the facts (and that is a good motive), I almost can’t help but base my course on the few facts I do know. And those facts have almost all been told me by the voice of pain itself. I may not be involved in a situation, but I am almost certain to misunderstand it.

I think that probably the only time to simply listen to, and validate, the pain is when there is another, whose job it is to walk with the sufferer through the reality, if pain can be made to take a quiet seat at the discussion table. If there is not such a person, then by validating pain, I am reinforcing its rule and affirming its claim. “No, pain, it is not about you.” If I only affirm and strengthen the claim that pain makes, I am working against the sufferer. I have been no friend.

If I speak against the claim, the pain may demand that I been thrown out. But if I don’t, the sufferer would be better off without me.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Understanding the Voice of Pain

  1. Thanks for the great post. It has led me to reflect that when I am in pain it is not so difficult to stop and ask what Gods message is. If after a while I can come up with no answer as to my culpability then I begin to wonder if this is God’s message or is the pain caused by an outside condition. If so then my job is to accept it, not as a victim but as an opportunity to grow. I have not been particularly successful at this since if I don’t understand my responsibility for the suffering I find it is easy to lapse into hopelessness which nullifies any benefit to be gained from righteous suffering. When no end can be seen for suffering for which I haven’t dicovered a cause then I tend to become mute. It is so much easier to accept suffering brought on by my own behavior than to accept suffering from circumstances for which I have no explanation. I end up feeling like a beast being led to the slaughter.

    Then I look at Jesus being led to his death for us and I know that there lies the answer.

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