Pain is awful. But it can be good if you choose it to be.
As if fearing the effects of a pandemic isn’t hard enough, the past several days, my wife and I have been working to manage our nine-month-old baby’s pain after his cleft palate repair surgery.
And that caused me to reflect on this subject that most of us hate but all of us experience: Pain.
Our baby has been screaming. When he’s not screaming, he’s crying. Since the surgical work was on the roof of his mouth, any kind of eating and drinking is painful except for the fact that we’ve been pumping him full of painkillers.
Pain sucks—no matter who has it. I mean, if you have it or your baby has it or anyone else you love has it, it’s all awful. We want it to end, quickly, instantly.
And that’s the culture we live in. We want pills that take away the pain—immediate gratification. For us, pills and pain often go together. No one wants to suffer.
I’m not here to say that using pain medication isn’t good sometimes or that we shouldn’t practice pain management after your kids gets surgery. That’s not my point.
Pain is about mindset
Our mindset around pain is the point.
Most of us have a deep aversion to pain and will avoid it at all costs. And saying that pain produces good sounds awkward at best, wrong at worst. But it’s true.
Pain often produces goodness.
Isn’t this how pain often works. It’s terrible, really. We suffer and yearn for the time when it will end, begging God or anyone else to help us as we squirm, complain, rage. Taking medication when we can, self-medicating if we must.
But more often than not, if we decide to quiet ourselves and study the pain or accept it or absorb it, it produces some kind of good somehow somewhere along the line. It’s either the pain itself that teaches us something that we needed to learn or changes us somehow to make us better or grants us something that ends up being good, like my son’s surgery.
As a high schooler, I played sports, and I remember the great suffering I experienced during practices in August under the oppressive humid midwestern heat. When I wasn’t thinking about throttling my coaches for being sadistic middle-aged men, I learned something invaluable: Grit. When I felt like quitting, even dying, I was able to move forward. I could run another sprint, go another play, dig a little deeper. Pain taught me that.
Pain is a teacher
Pain is one of our best teachers.
We all face it, experience it. Don’t we? Parents failing us, friends leaving us, lovers betraying us, children lying to us, that old injury, migraines, or our bodies aging are all painful.
And now, during these times of greater uncertainty than we already live with, a pandemic closes in on our lives, as we watch the financial markets plummet each day, our companies panic, our sports teams shut down, our world dazed. It’s dizzying. It’s terrifying. It hurts. A lot.
And it’s in those moments that an opportunity to become greater presents itself. Pain can make us extraordinary.
It’s teaching us. It’s teaching you now. The question is, Are you willing to learn? Can you be a good student?
Patience, humility, kindness, empathy, grit are all molded into us, not in the good times, but in the bad. It’s in those terrible moments in life, when we want to hide but choose not to, those characteristics are forged, strengthened, codified into our minds, our hearts, our souls.
In pain, we’re being taught. We learn.
Growth means choosing pain
If you do, you will grow. It’s that simple. It’s just isn’t that easy.
Any great feat demands pain.
Want to get fit? Pain. Want to grow your career? Pain. Want to have a family? Pain. Want to have good relationships? Pain. Want to become a better person? Pain. It’s always a part of the equation of how you improve.
But that’s a choice. You can choose to see pain as your enemy or as a teacher. You can choose to see pain as the worst thing in life, or you can own it and believe that it will cause you to live better.
I’m not saying we should love pain. Just because it produces goodness doesn’t mean pain is good. In and of itself, it isn’t.
And I’m certainly not saying to go and seek it out. It’s a natural part of life. You don’t need to seek pain, it will find you.
Pain isn’t the objective.
It’s a path that can lead you to better things, if you so choose.
Three of the best books I’ve read on pain:
- A Grief Observed, by C. S. Lewis (affiliate link): Lewis shares the experience of losing the love of his life and articulates facets of emotional pain that I never knew existed. And somehow when I was able to see them, it helped me heal and grow.
- Man’s Search for Meaning, by Victor Frankl (affiliate link): Frankl was a Holocaust survivor. He was at Aushewtiz and somehow made it out alive and not only that set the lens of his psychiatric training on his suffering. It will change the way you see suffering forever.
- Problem of Pain, by C. S. Lewis (affiliate link): Why do good people suffer? Why is their pain? If God is good, why do we suffer? Those are all good questions. And Lewis tackles them in this book. It has been one of my all time favorites to help me wrestle with the ache we all feel.