This is not my favorite chapter. Barbara Brown Taylor, in An Altar in the World has an amazing chapter on pain and suffering. She talks about it as a spiritual practice, like Prayer or Service are spiritual disciplines. She talks about the shedding of pretense, the honesty, the truth which is revealed in pain. I hope the next time I am in terrible, sleepless, panicky pain, I will remember some of what she writes!
If pain must be born, could it at least have some purpose? The 20th century Lebanese mystic, Kahlil Gibran wrote of pain, “Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.” St. Peter talks about the value of submitting to suffering, even unjustly (1 Peter 2:19-24).
There does seem to be a link between painful suffering and the development of what we often describe in a person as “depth.” My Young Life leader and friend Dick Lowey once said, “You show me someone who has never suffered and I will show you someone who is this deep!” He then held up a finger and thumb on one hand, only a quarter-inch apart: shallow: no pain, no depth. When I was young, Gordon Lightfoot sang about “rainy-day” people and Catholic theologian Henry Nouwen wrote about “wounded healers.” A A was founded on the principle that only one who has been “through it” can help one who stands in need of recovery. I do not know how it works but I believe I have somehow been deepened through suffering.
I have been seasoned by:
1. actual pain
I have no teeth. I did not come to be this way all at once although the last sad, eighteen, filling-filled, crowned, rotting refugees were all pulled from my mouth one day in 2008. Another twelve had presented themselves for extraction over the years through pain. Although I was soundly out cold when the final remnants took their leave, the rest had let me know things were not right, one by one, by filling my conscious life periodically with agony. Pure pain. Pain in your face; pain you cannot block, ignore, wish away or otherwise escape. Were I young today, I would still have had, like my mother and several siblings, highly acidic saliva and ridiculously soft, thin dental enamel, but today there are options other than extraction. The big, fat, carie-filled molars that old Dr. Thorsen popped out of my head, one after another during high school, would be salvaged now: root canals, dowel & cores, crowns and half-crowns. Not back then.
How did I handle all the pain? Not very well, as I remember it. I would bargain and cry and be quite miserable, alone. Somehow, I was ashamed of the whole thing. Thorsen would lecture me to rinse my mouth with water after eating candy or drinking soda. How could I tell him our family never bought soda pop and I ate very little candy?
Was the mere business of occasionally being so miserable a seasoning experience somehow? The Holy Spirit’s unutterable groaning?
2. the pain of others
There is a sentence in Everyone’s Way of the Cross about the pain which we see others bear is often more difficult for us than our own pain. It is at least true for me that the pain of those I love is equal to my own. I hate pain so I hate it when those I love are in pain. I do not know what their pain is like, really, but I do know my own. I am often driven to urgent and fervent prayer because of the suffering of those I love.
3. “suffering” academic failure
…not working up to his potential.
…a day dreamer; often seems ‘out of it.’
His oral report was excellent but he got a failing grade because he never turned in the written copy, even with several reminders.
Comments like these piled up in my cumulative school record. After a while it seemed like teachers were “ready” for me, like they expected me to be “unattached.” It was a vicious circle, I suppose. Of course, I would surprise them sometimes. A ninth grade history teacher took me out in the hall to quiz me, coming just short of accusing me of cheating, as I had aced – highest grade in the class – a quarterly final!
You know, in spite of all that, I knew inside that I was smart. I also knew I did not care about much and could rarely force myself to study but some things grabbed me and I would go into hyper-focus – an ADD term – and not come out for hours. I truly loved knowledge, just not all knowledge.
4. suffering the frustrations of ADD
It is weird to grow up knowing you are defective but not knowing what to call it or whether it even should have a name other than “lazy” and “goldbrick” and “irresponsible.” I hated being called those sorts of names because they just were not true, somehow. I was messy and disorganized, sure. I still am. I was a day dreamer, no contest. But I did care. I just could not be consistent about much of anything. I was a very frustrated child and even more-so as a young adult. I eventually became terrified of failure and that terror would drive me to focus and to achieve. Yet, even when I did well, I could not give myself credit for it. Somehow, my near four-point college cumulative grade average had to be a fluke. Wasn’t it? After all, I was the screw-up who had been repeatedly told by his father he would never amount to anything.
5. suffering through my home environment
I am, among other things, the product of a highly dysfunctional family. One of the essential discoveries about addiction in the 1970s (at Minnesota’s Johnson Institute) was that the members of the family of an alcoholic, drug-abuser, etc., all adopt the various dysfunctional behaviors of their family’s system. Moreover, the children in such families learn co-dependent behaviors and attitudes, and carry them on into their adult lives. Yes they do. And, the more dysfunctional the family is, the more rigid are the roles which members of the family play in their homes and in their later lives.
The family roles identified back then have remained largely unchanged over the years and they function in every family of any size: Chief Enabler, Family Hero, Caretaker, Family Clown, Scapegoat and Lost Child. Shortly after I first learned about all this I shared the information with my dad. When we came to the information about family roles, I read to him from the list of roles, complete with short descriptions, and I asked him to identify which of his five children had played which role. He nailed every one. When I read the title and described the “Scapegoat” role he said, “Why, that was you!”
Yes, indeed it was… er, has been. The “Scapegoat” in a dysfunctional family deflects pressure and blame from the abuser by turning the family’s attention to a “problem” other than the abuser, another source of trouble: him or herself. Yes, he or she does just exactly that.
6. suffering depression
I have never been chronically depressed that I am aware of but I have had at least my share of experiences with acute depression, related especially to struggles with my family and with the long-term patterns associated with the old scapegoat role, and with working my way through the ADD issues of my life. Depression is sometimes called ‘the common cold’ of mental illness. Like other things, it can be a warning signal. Like everything else in life I think the key question, finally, is “What are you going to do with it?”
7. suffering through living
Living is dangerous. Life is full of pain. Living is terminal. No one survives living. Not even Jesus never died. So, what are we going to do with living?
Ernie Larson has a good analogy. He says,
Your parents came into their relationship with the “hand” that was dealt to them in the course of their life. When it came to raising you, they played the cards they had. If they had had better cards they would have played them. Now you have the hand you have been dealt. How will you play your cards?
Jess Lair once entitled a book, I Ain’t Much, Baby but I’m All I’ve Got! That is exactly right: no shame, no blame, no gaming anyone. My life’s pain has stripped away much pretense and falsehood. I do small talk but I am not good at it. I am who I am; I have been through what I have been through. I have not just endured; I have grown in care and empathy for pain and suffering around me, with the cards I have. Just as I am, King Jesus has seen fit to meet me and to make use of me. That, as Job seems to say at the end of his story, is enough.
Next time: Lessons Life Has Taught Me