Pain is Your Friend
SEPTEMBER 24, 2014
“You should have listened to the pain. Pain is your friend.” That’s what the doctor told me after back surgery to remove a ruptured disc from my spine.
Yeah, I was too stubborn to listen. I wasn’t going to let pain push me around. I gutted it out for six months before the disc blew and almost left me gimpy and without bowel control or sexual function.
If I had been humble enough to listen, I would have heard my friend pain warning me to be kinder to myself–reduce the physical activity that was pounding on my back and lose some weight.
My response to psychological pain has often been no different. When my friends Sadness, Bitterness and Loneliness come knocking to warn me about the wounds in my soul that are festering and threatening to cripple me, I often just get angry and tell them to piss off. I go watch TV or play video games or busy myself with BS… or worse. If they still won’t leave, I’ve been known to pour booze on them or try to smoke them out and then slam the door in their faces.
When I ignore psychological pain, the result is the same as ignoring a ruptured disc. I limp through certain areas of my life, impotent and covered in my own feces. All the while, my friend pain just wants me to heal, to be kinder to myself and those who’ve hurt me.
Carl Jung said, “What you resist, persists.” Not only that, the pain we resist festers in the dark and infects our lives in areas far from the site of the original wound.
So, when pain comes knocking and we dare to greet him (or her) as a friend who wants to help us heal, what then?
Redeeming the Pain
In my post, Drunk Believers, I defined sobriety as simply embracing reality:
Reality is infected with the pain of what we’ve done, what we’ve left undone, and what’s been done to us. Reality is also overflowing with the Spirit, God’s merciful presence, all of the undeserved blessings and joys in life, and on top of that, access to the Godhead and the ultimate redemption of the worst evil this bent world can dish out. Sobriety is letting all that hit you with full force.
We all construct barriers out of behaviors that provide protection from pain, but these walls also cut us off from all that we were created to enjoy. That’s easy to see in the behavior of an addict, but it also happens when we misuse religion, shopping, power, sex, achievement… pick your prison. We’re all users and abusers, but addiction sets in when we abandon reality in exchange for self-protection. We can’t selectively numb out, the ache and the ecstasy both go when we give up on reality. When we become addicted to providing our own relief, paradoxically, pleasure is drained from our lives…
…we have to be willing to let the waves of pain knock us down, so the pleasure can wash over us.
The only way to live sober is to redeem the pain instead of running from it. Admittedly, that’s easier said than done. We won’t even entertain the idea until the pain of ignoring our pain grows greater than the pain of embracing our pain. I hope that painful sentence makes sense.
It’s probably best I turn to some dirt-under-our-fingernails examples of redeeming the pain.
In my next few posts, I’ll cover three practical ways we can get sober and trust the Spirit to use pain for good in our lives and in the lives we touch: Compassion, Creative Expression and Transformation.
Practicing sobriety by embracing our pain helps us to receive compassion and make us more compassionate toward the pain of others.
A few years ago my son really pissed me off. He didn’t actually do anything wrong, but what he did do struck a raw nerve in me and I reacted.
He was six-years-old. I called him over to me and motioned for him to sit on my lap. I think I had been fighting with my wife and I just wanted to sit in my son’s presence. There’s nothing like the wide-eyed adoration of your children to make you believe all the effort to raise them is worth it. But he wouldn’t listen.
“Come sit with Daddy.” I’m sure the tone in my voice the second time was more intense.
He climbed up into my lap, but his squirming made it clear he’d rather go back to whatever he was doing. I was being denied the comfort and validation I sought. He elbowed me and I pushed him off my lap.
“Fine, go!” I yelled.
Anger over my son’s perceived rejection was instantly mixed with shame over my reaction.
Later that week I sat in a counseling session and recounted the event to my therapist.
We talked about my memories from when I was six-years-old. One in particular became the focus of our conversation.
35 years ago, I lay on my bed beating my head with a toy baseball bat.
“What were you feeling?” my counselor asked.
I searched in the darkness for an answer, but nothing came to mind except, “I want to be alone, but I don’t want to be alone, and I don’t know what that means.”
I kept repeating it to the counselor over and over again, “I want to be alone, but I don’t want to be alone, and I don’t know what that means. I want to be alone, but I don’t want to be alone, and I don’t know what that means.”
My head swelled with the words and I just wanted the confusing thoughts to stop. “I want to be alone, but I don’t want to be alone, and I don’t know what that means.” My counselor watched as I started to beat on my forehead with my fist. “I want to be alone, but I don’t want to be alone, and I don’t know what that means.” No matter how hard I hit myself, I couldn’t get the words out of my head.
I left counseling that day bruised and exhausted. I didn’t have any answers as to what the hell was going on with me as a kid. But I knew in my gut that it hurt bad to be six-years-old… because I had just relived it.
I thought of my six-year-old son. I imagined him in bed beating his head with a bat. It made me sick to my stomach. I just wanted to let him know that I understood how hard it was to be such a helpless little guy in such a big confusing world.
That night, I tucked him in and lay next to him. I cried and told him I was sorry for pushing him away. He forgave me, and the compassion of the Spirit filled the room. Until I embraced the hurting child within myself, I had less compassion for my boy.
“The acceptance of oneself is the essence of the whole moral problem and the epitome of a whole outlook on life. That I feed the hungry, that I forgive an insult, that I love my enemy in the name of Christ — all these are undoubtedly great virtues. What I do unto the least of my brethren, that I do unto Christ. But what if I should discover that the least among them all, the poorest of all the beggars, the most impudent of all the offenders, the very enemy himself — that these are within me, and that I myself stand in need of the alms of my own kindness — that I myself am the enemy who must be loved — what then? As a rule, the Christian’s attitude is then reversed; there is no longer any question of love or long-suffering; we say to the brother within us ‘Raca,’ and condemn and rage against ourselves. We hide it from the world; we refuse to admit ever having met this least among the lowly in ourselves.”
― Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections
I am the selfish enemy who didn’t get the adoration he wanted from his young son so he turned on him. But why? Because the enemy inside me is actually a neglected child who is so insecure, he wouldn’t know what to do with attention if he got any. “I want to be alone, but I don’t want to be alone…” and until this moment, writing this, I didn’t know what that means.
Yes, I am my own worst enemy, but Jesus teaches us to love our enemies. I had to start with looking at the reality of my life. Compassion for my son depended on me embracing my pain, and my apology to him opened the door to the experience of the Spirit’s compassion through him. I received absolution from my son as he incarnated unconditional love.
By embracing a hard reality, I moved deeper into sobriety. I touched the healing transcendent. I didn’t need a drink to comfort me because my pain was redeemed.
Look at all the damage that you’ve done. Start there. Own it. But don’t stop there. Receive the unconditional love of the Spirit and have compassion on the enemy within yourself. You may even find yourself being more loving to the enemies outside of yourself.
As Steve Brown says, “You can’t love until you’ve been loved, and then you can only love to the degree to which you have been loved.”
Read the next post in this series, Beauty from Brutality.