I am guilty. I laughed off multiple warnings about carrying a heavy backpack.  As a student on a massive  campus, nobody had a better answer for getting my $200, 200 pound books from class to class, and besides … I felt fine.

It took 15 years for this abuse to my body to catch up. Loud shoulder and neck pain that shot zingers through my arm and into my hand, sent me to a doctor.

“Backpack injury.”

I argued that this didn’t seem likely, unless the diaper bag I had been lugging around could be blamed, but she assured me that this was nothing unusual, even so many years out. The injury had existed all along, I had just learned to cope with it until something  likely quite minor (maybe even diapers), pushed me over the brink.

Thankfully, she was able to help and for several years I’ve lived mostly pain free … free, until this spring. A car accident sent me over the edge again. This along with a very difficult season of unexpected change, has given me a chance to revisit the “gift” of pain.

It always sounded good to call pain a gift … probably because it’s easy to “glossify” experiences when I’m not in the midst of them … or at least not experiencing to a very deep degree. Now the coin is flipped — intensely so, and my “sermons” on pain have dulled from a rosy tone of cheer-leading to dismal black and gray clouds of grumbling.

Pain hurts. It wears me out, makes me grumpy around those I love, and ultimately steals joy and vitality.  It makes me mad to not be able to do “normal” activities without hurting.  It makes me fearful, that this could be as good as it gets. Pain has left my sorrowing over the past and what used to be.

Thistle (pain)

Pain, however, is something I don’t get to opt out on. Whether, physical or emotional,  I’ve come to realize that while the American dream  boils down to doing everything possible to escape and ignore pain so that we can just “have fun” … this is just not going to happen. As long as I am a citizen of a broken, messed up world, I, and those I love, will encounter hurt.

This season of constant, often excruciating pain (and disappointments) have led me to random observations. There are no formulas here, just experiences.

Thought #1: Pain is pain. Emotional or physical it has a potentially crippling effect. It hurts. It’s not fun. It can’t (and shouldn’t) be ignored.

Thought #2: Pain is at its worse when I’m alone.

I’m way too independent. It has been a pride sorta thing to accomplish hard or unpleasant things on my own, but I’ve reached that pinnacle where I can’t do it alone one moment longer … I had to seek out help.

“I have a high tolerance for pain,” I explained to the doctor. “Or you just don’t want to inconvenience your routine enough to let someone else help you,” was his answer. Blunt … but right.  Even blunter, is the fact that I do the same thing when it comes to breeches in relationships and disappointments in life.

By not letting someone who knows more (or who can at least see things from a different perspective)  into the picture, I usually only succeed in prolonging the pain. And then, there’s that other nagging question — how much damage was done by not seeking out help earlier?

Thought #3: Pain leads to change. “Until the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain (and fear) of change, I will stay where I am.” I’ve heard this often. My recent addition to this thought is that I will stay in that same condition SUFFERING. Who was it that defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again somehow expecting a different outcome? It’s insane when I ignore pain, acting like it isn’t there or that it will magically evaporate one day.

When I can’t take the pain any longer, I have to change … my attitude, my habits, etc … It’s time to check out what part I’ve played in creating or prolonging the pain.  I have had to adjust to new postures … both physically and in attitude.  I’ve had to change bad habits and, in the case of emotional pain, choose to forgive.

Changes haven’t  always resulted in complete release, but there is peace in knowing that I’ve done my part.

Thought #4: Pain can be addicting. If it is not actively kicking me in the face, the vivid memory of it is lurking near by. I think about it … I test to see if it is really gone … is it going to sneak up on me again?

Am I the only one who toys with my pain?

I don’t really want to experience it, yet, it brought attention … it made me focus differently. I am so aware of the spot on my shoulder where the pain lives that even when it’s not acting up, I think about it. The memories of disappointments are eagerly fresh and brand new every day.

Part of this is protective … I don’t want to hurt again. But when I’m honest, I’ve had to ask, “Am I really ready to live without it?” It’s become such a part of my life of late that I almost miss it when it’s quieted down. The pain distracts me from other stuff … sometimes bad stuff, so thus it’s a welcome distraction; sometimes good stuff … allowing me to live in avoidance. I know this is weird, but I’ve had to ask myself, do I REALLY want it to go away?

Emotional pain is the hardest to let go of. I hate being hurt. I hate that gut-wrenching feeling that happens every time the pain of a wrongful situation rolls around in me. Yet, honestly, sometimes the pain has become such a part of me, that I’m a little nervous about what it would be like to really let go. Emotional pain reminds me of those who hurt me. If I let go of the pain, I let go of the people who hurt me.  What if I never get to fix the situation? What if I never get to see them admit that they were wrong?

Through the fog

Thought #5: I may not feel well, but God does not stop being trustworthy.

It’s been argued that IF pain is a gift, what does it say about the giver? Do all things really come from God? Why then does He allow me to hurt, to be slowed down, to endure things that are unfair?

There are many messages on suffering and the nature of this world that unwrap this topic better that I will ever be able to … all I know is my resolve.

I settled long ago, that He gets to be boss.  Psalms 100 a pact between me and God.  My paraphrase:

Acknowledge that the Lord is God!
    He made me, and I am His
    We are his people, the sheep of His pasture.

He gets to lead … I will follow.  It is the landscape, not God, who is unfair and treacherous.  There are devouring lions on the road … dark valleys in the path … awful storms in the atmosphere.

The cross is proof that He, Himself, does not shy away from pain.  This poem is written inside the cover of my Bible:  (Note – this written by a woman who spent the last 20 years of her life and ministry bedridden because of a pain-crippling accident).

Hast Thou No Scar 

by Amy Carmichael

Hast thou no scar?
No hidden scar on foot, or side, or hand?
I hear thee sung as mighty in the land,
I hear them hail thy bright ascendant star,
Hast thou no scar?

Hast thou no wound?
Yet, I was wounded by the archers, spent.
Leaned me against the tree to die, and rent
By ravening beasts that compassed me, I swooned:
Hast thou no wound?

No wound? No scar?
Yet as the Master shall the servant be,
And pierced are the feet that follow Me;
But thine are whole. Can he have followed far
Who has no wound nor scar?

If the wounds and scars of this life result in making me more like Jesus, then all is gained and nothing lost.

Thought #6: Pain may not always go away, but it certainly won’t calm down if I keep doing the same things. This seems obvious after # 3, but there exists  a subtle difference. I can change my venue, habits, etc … but there is an intentional letting go that has to take place. I think when it comes to emotional pain, that this “letting go” has to do with forgiveness.

I remember a friend telling me once that by re-hearsing the wrongs done to me in the past, I’m simply breathing life back into them again.

A vivid example of this stood out at a women’s retreat years ago. I was new at this church and noticed a woman sitting by herself in the corner.  Someone said that she had attended for several years, so it was curious that  everyone seemed to avoid her.  I soon found out why.

Sitting down, to introduce myself, I asked the typical, “How are you?” She took me up on the question and told me … for TWO HOURS!  Every disappointment, pain, setback, betrayal, and difficulty came out … emotions and all.  As the stories – each carefully preserved in detail – grew, so did the pain. Each story came alive and she was hurt all over again. Angry! Like it had just happened!

I wanted to run, but forced myself to stay in it. We became friends of sorts, and I, along with other, frequently prayed that she would be able to let go of the pain … embrace forgiveness.  She did to small degrees, but never fully.  Sadly, the woman died of cancer before she was 60, never really free of all of the emotional pain.

Her memories were each so carefully packed up, so that they remained fresh … I wonder might have happened had she chosen to forgive rather than carry them everywhere she went?  What a burden they became.

Thought #7: I admire people who don’t hide their pain. I equally admire people who don’t throw their pain at you. You may never know it’s there. Contradictory, I know.

I don’t have to wear others out by always making sure they know how much pain I am in.  After all, what are they supposed to do about it?  Have I gone to God first?  He is the healer.

Paradoxically, being honest about my pain, emotional as well as physical – in the appropriate settings  – has resulted in looks of relief from others.  “I’m not alone,” the look says.  “Okay, so you’ve been hurt too?  I thought it was just me that screwed up?”  “If you can get through this and still keep your eyes on God, so can I.”

Eccleciastes 4:9,10  Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble.

Final thought: Pain is not what characterizes me … it is the hope within that flavors my soul.

May my pain never define me.  Even though it may limit what I can do, it can never limit what You will do. Like Paul and Silas in prison, please help me to always find words of praise for You, no matter how real the chains, no matter how dark the room. Help me find grace for endurance; peace when it comes time to let go. 

Thank you for drawing closest when life is darkest.  I don’t understand how that works, but you have never dropped me.  You never will. May fear never convince me otherwise. 

No matter what the circumstances may say of my history, may one thread show strong through it all.  Jesus … crucified … risen … faithful … alive … praying for me.  Jesus.  The lover of my soul. The Soon and Coming King.

Hope (flowers)