Sometimes when I scan my bookshelves I have to chuckle because I’m rather sure Amazon must think I am a pretty troubled soul. My bookshelves and my Amazon Wish List are filled with titles about loss, disappointment, and pain. I suppose it is a liability of my profession, but even before I became a therapist, I was drawn to reading and understanding how we deal with and overcome pain in our lives. I realized a couple of years ago that I think one of the reasons I keep reading about the darker side of life is that I keep searching for new answers. I think deep down I’m holding out hope that maybe someone has found a new take on heartache or new research that shows how we can avoid pain or make pain stop once it starts. I think I secretly hope that when I click on those articles on Yahoo that promise 5 Easy Steps to Let Go of Resentment and Disappointment that there really will be five easy steps that I haven’t heard before.
Sadly, that is never the case.
Several years ago, though, I did read something that changed how I saw pain and the purpose of pain in our lives. Yes, I said the purpose of pain.
In Philip Yancey’s Where is God When it Hurts, he talks about the work of Dr. Paul Brand. Dr. Brand worked primarily with leprosy patients. Probably like most people, my understanding of leprosy has been shaped by what I learned in Sunday School as a child. In my mind, leprosy was this horrible skin disease from back in “Jesus times”, and lepers had scabby skin, open wounds, and had to shout “Unclean, unclean” if anyone came near.
I was surprised to learn that leprosy is not a skin disease. Leprosy affects the nervous system, and it takes away a person’s ability to feel pain. It makes a person completely numb to pain. Consequently, when they injure themselves they may not realize how significant the injury, which leads to further harm, infections, gaping wounds, and eventual lost limbs.
Their inability to feel pain actually makes their life and health worse.
To aid his patients, Dr. Brand and his engineers developed a type of glove with sensors that signaled a warning when the patient was unknowingly hurting himself. Initially the signal was a loud alarm, but Dr. Brand found that despite the loud noise signaling the patients to stop what they were doing, they would continue in their activity even though they knew they were hurting themselves.
Dr. Brand then tried using a flashing light and eventually resorted to using a slight electric shock to get the patients to stop their unintentionally self destructive behavior. He discovered, though, that patients started switching off the shock feature when they really wanted to do something that they knew would trigger the warning. Self-will proved stronger than self-care. He eventually gave up on the project because it proved too costly and completely ineffective.
Philip Yancey said in conclusion, “By definition, pain is unpleasant, enough so to force us to withdraw our fingers from a stove. Yet that very quality saves us from destruction. Unless the warning signal demands response, we might not heed it.
Pain forces us to stop. Pain forces us to listen.
Physical pain is the body’s alarm system. If you sprain your ankle running, pain tells you something wrong has occurred and gets you to pay attention to the wounded area so you don’t keep hurting yourself. Pain tells us something very important. It tells us that something has happened and that something is wrong.
Emotional pain is our heart’s alarm system telling us something is wrong and that something has (or has not) happened. Heartache and disappointment, the forms of pain we wish to avoid most in life, force us to stop and re-evaluate. Emotional pain signals to us that we need to do something differently. Maybe the signal is telling us to try something new. Maybe it’s telling us to pause and wait for more information. Maybe it’s telling us to move on entirely.
Pain can serve a purpose. Sadness, disappointment, discouragement can serve a purpose. These difficult experiences force us to pay attention and to re-evaluate our actions, our choices, and our decisions.
Pain is the siren of our heart and the validator of our life experience. It signals when something has happened and it validates that, yes, it was a big deal. Pain says Stop. Mourn. Grieve. Rage. Weap. What happened to you mattered. What is happening IS a big deal. Don’t minimize it. Don’t brush it under the rug. Don’t numb it. Don’t avoid it.
Without pain- without heartbreak, loneliness, disappointment- we sometimes would not know when to stop and we may end up doing ourselves more harm. We wouldn’t know when to get out of the relationship. We wouldn’t know when to leave the job. We wouldn’t know when to say no and set boundaries. Pain can actually be a great teacher and instigator of change, if we let it. Yes, we may convince ourselves that numbing, ignoring, and avoiding are the better options, but they are not. Being emotionally numb does not lead to NOT being hurt; it just leads to NOT knowing when the hurt is being done.
But pain is never pleasant. As much as I have read and heard “Rejoice in your suffering,” that is often a hard pill for me to swallow because pain hurts, and my survival instinct says avoid pain, numb pain, reject pain. My survival instinct says all those things, but the seeds of truth and wisdom that try to take root in my mind remind me that pain can have meaning, it is not eternal, and every wound can be bound up and healed.
What is the truth about pain? The truth about pain is that it always hurts and it is never comfortable, but pain can tell us something. It can tell us something we need to hear and that just might save us from our own destruction.
What is your pain telling you today? What has your pain told you in the past? How can you embrace your heartache so that it shapes your life rather than stops your life?