I realise that so much of my life is spent trying to avoid pain. In a sheer guess, I suspect avoiding pain is just the other side of the coin to “pursuing pleasure” and all of us are motivated by either one side or the other throughout our lives. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing. There are all sorts of bad pains to avoid and all sorts of good pleasures to pursue.
Perhaps I have a morbid fascination for pain and suffering. I’m drawn to memorials and exhibitions that highlight some of the lowest points in human history. For instance, I had one day to myself when I visited New York for work a few years ago and I decided to spend a good portion of that day in the 911 museum.
It was the human stories that captivated me more than anything else. People going about their lives as they had done every other day, who were plunged into a nightmare, and along with them their surviving friends and loved ones. It was the ordinariness of these people and the fact that it was a Monday morning, which impacted me most.
Elsewhere I’ve written about my visit to Tuol Sleng in Cambodia.
Last year Sue and I visited the Imperial War Museum in London.
The images that haunt me come from the Holocaust exhibition, two in particular taken of children, probably no older than one of my granddaughters, both naked, treated as though they are specimens for an experiment, displaying sheer terror on their faces. Pain and suffering in its most undiluted and horrifying portrayals.
Visiting the National Museum in Prague, I found myself totally drawn to the stories of Czech pilots who decided to fight as Czech Nationals with the Royal Airforce.
The insane irony of their story was that if were they captured by Nazi forces, they would not have been treated as the British whom they fought alongside, but would have been shot as traitors, seeing Czechoslovakia (as it was known then) was a protectorate of Germany.
Yet, after the war, within a few years of returning to their homeland they were treated as the enemies of the Communist state with most of them serving out lengthy terms in prison and suffering other indignities. Under another regime, they would have been heroes.
These are just a few examples of pain memorialised. This is the collective pain shared by communities. Rather than hide this collective pain, we decide to create tributes to those who have suffered so that their suffering will be remembered.
There are many times in my life I wish we lived without pain. As a Christian, my understanding of pain comes from a worldview which sees creation infiltrated by a corroding dynamic. This dynamic is manifest somehow in every form of community, sometimes rearing itself in destructive elements, such as abusive leadership. It also sees a corroding dynamic within the natural world itself, which heaves under the impact of catastrophic events such as bush fires like those that ravaged many parts of Australia in 2019-20.
In this context, I see pain as horribly alien to the world as God intended it. It should be a world where people live fully to fulfil their potential, love one another and celebrate life. It should be a world where racial, cultural and individual differences are an expression of the kaleidoscopic life, which God has breathed into each of us and a matter of rejoicing rather than division.
But, that is not the world we all live in – yet.
Pain is a reality. But pain can also be a great ally. Dr Paul Brand, who worked for years with leprosy patients, spent much of his time as a doctor studying pain. One of his conclusions was that pain is actually a gift. It focusses our attention to threats that localise in our bodies. Physical pain alerts me to something being wrong. He wrote in his co-authored book with Philip Yancy, In His Image, “pain contributes to a normal person’s quality of life, even in such a common activity as walking.” It is this mechanism for receiving pain which is damaged in people with leprosy, who have no warning system to prevent even simple burns and cuts.
Pain also connects me to those who are suffering. Their pain reminds me of my own potential for suffering and highlights the connectedness we all feel during our best moments when we witness the pain of people we do not even know. It is why absolute strangers are moved to supporting the relief efforts of charities and NGO’s during times of disaster.
There are probably many more examples of how pain has good consequences.
There is nothing virtuous though in experiencing pain. My pain is a result of living in a broken world, where bad things happen to all of us. Sometimes I experience pain because of my own silly decisions, even if my silly decisions were made years ago and I can’t see the connection with what is happening right now. Other times they are the result of other people’s actions and yet other times my pain is a result of seemingly random events.
My question to myself is what do I do with my pain? Will I direct it in a beneficial way?
Jesus spoke, on the verge of his own painful death, these words
Very truly, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies it remains only a single seed. But if if dies it produces many seeds.
His pain brought life to many. What will my pain produce?