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Aches, pangs and humility

Living with pain provides the opportunity to rise above it, to walk more closely with God

By Lee Simpson

Pain is not a gift from God. It does, however, grant rare privileges to see God enacted in our world. Insight comes less from the endurance of pain than in the observation of its impact on ourselves and others.

I live with arthritis. Note: I do not say, "I suffer from it." I do not say, "I am a victim of it." How I live with arthritis is a choice, and how I experience it, a considered decision. The pain that is the daily constant of arthritis is part of me. In profound ways, it has helped to define me. I was diagnosed at age six when those "growing pains" did not go away. My whole life I have travelled with this demanding companion. I lay no claim to nobility gained from this experience: I can be a big whiny baby. But I am fully present to both the challenge and the reward of living past the pain.

I hear my bones rub together with all the hurt that sound implies. My left knee is particularly nasty, both to look at and to lean on.

As a teen, I was determined not to be different, not to let the disease slow me down, so I rode horses and got thrown; cross-country skied and tumbled. I did things that cause arthritis to flare. Calcification goes to those joints like iron filings to a magnet. Arthritis forces me to be fit. Slowing down means feeling worse sooner. Five pounds isn't merely a tighter waistband -- it means more hurt. Ten pounds is the difference between active comfort and an impatient stint on the couch. An additional 20 pounds could bring immobility. I won't give up -- I have made a friend of the pain as it reminds me that I am still moving, still fighting, still me.

My mother had arthritis. It put a hook in her spine and distorted the slim fingers of her pretty hands. Standing straight had been impossible for a long time; in the end she could not stand at all. It seemed a cruel fate for an elegant lady of perfect posture who modelled into her late 70s. This was not an interpretation that she chose to dwell on. My mother lived with pain: she did not allow it to minimize her. Indeed, she forced the arthritis to give back to her more than it took away.

At 83, she seized the opportunity to surprise her granddaughter at school in Italy on her 17th birthday. Preparing for the trip motivated her recovery from two hip surgeries. She hauled a suitcase packed with gifts up the ancient steps of a medieval village for that moment of bliss and talked of it for the next decade. She fought the disfigurement of her hands by knitting furiously. At 89, when she could no longer see, she felt her way to creation of magically beautiful scarves of brilliant yarn and warm leggings for the residents of the seniors home, noting wryly, "After all, I might be old myself one day."

It was not suffering that was God's gift in my mother's life: it was the knowledge granted by her quiet faith that she was doing the best she could to fully participate in the life God gave her. It was also the opportunity it afforded all of us to serve my mother some of the comfort she had given us. My daughter, my husband and I delighted in giving her opportunities to travel with us. Her grandsons loved her mitts and her unconditional acceptance. Her friends cherished her optimism. My sister, a professional health practitioner working with geriatric patients, used her consummate skill to ease my mother's last days. She walked hand-in-hand that lap of Mom's pain: our gratitude for that gift is matched by her own thankfulness at having the chance to be there in that final profound intimacy.

I served congregations long enough to have the privilege of accompanying those who die in pain. Pain is not a gift from God. Suffering is not ennobling. It just hurts. Cruel pain, like that of some cancers, drains the personality of all focus except pain.

What is a gift, and is gratefully received, is the relief that comes from modern science and its gentle practitioners in palliative care wards. What is God's present to us is the balm of the presence of family and friends to those who leave us less peacefully than any would wish. What is truly God's mercy is the strength found by those who are wracked with pain.

I visited a parishioner who was humbled and seemingly broken by the sharp tooth of cancer. He trusted enough to let me see his suffering and we prayed together for relief. I saw him rally for a grandson's visit, reassuring the youngster that Grampy was okay with what he was facing. His ability to put aside his pain was truly a marvel.

A friend recently told me of his medical research investigation into children's pain. His task was to evaluate various techniques of distraction while little ones received a necessary injection. The objective: to determine whether audio (singing with a CD) or visual (watching a cartoon) was more effective. It turned out that neither was as useful as the presence of a calm parent. The expectation voiced by Mom or Dad that "this wouldn't be so bad" was measurably more effective in minimizing suffering than any media intervention. The child was able to rise above the pain, in effect, to fulfill the parent's need to not watch them suffer.

Those who have experienced childbirth are familiar with this method. Rhythmic breathing and concentration on a focus point are standard Lamaze techniques. They serve to lift us above the pain threshold. As birthing mothers, we do this to help ourselves, of course, because having lived through one contraction you really don't need the experience of another! In so doing, we also comfort our partners or birth coaches by "managing" this life event: they want us to succeed at this pain minimization challenge. We do this to the betterment of all, including the drug-free newborn.

Pain is not quantifiable and is experienced individually, less in accord with some abstract barometer than in response to our own need to feel it. If we absolutely must get beyond it to put a loved one at ease, we do. Are we actually suffering less, or have we simply found a way to rise above it? Does it matter?

I have watched those of profound faith use it to the same effect. It is not the suffering that ennobles; it is our belief in the relief to come. Sometimes that alleviation is in the hands of a nurse. Sometimes relief is the arrival of a friend to distract us. True, sometimes only death brings release. In my experience, those who face the end with God are calmer and more serene than those without that fixed focal point of grace. God as sedative? Faith as analgesic? Too simplistic, but I have witnessed faith in God grant a person the strength to rise above. In pain, our vulnerability makes us again the small children for whom the expectation is fulfilled: this will not hurt so much if we have a hand to hold. It is not the pain that is God's gift, it is the chance it affords us to be the best we can be.

Today is a good day, not because I am pain-free but because it is just enough to keep God close and me humble.

Rev. Lee Simpson is a member of The Observer staff in Toronto.


Rev. Lee Simpson is a writer in Lunenburg, N.S. New posts of YBN will appear every other Friday. You can also check out a short documentary about Lee at http://www.ucobserver.org/video/2014/04/ybn/.
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