Can we talk about pain?
That sounds excessively dramatic, and it probably is. Maybe I should begin this the way I began every childhood letter…
How are you? I am fine.
Today we trekked up to the castle, ventured out to a museum, found lunch on a cold and blustery day belonging more to March than June. Today was going to be a full, lovely Saturday, stuffed with things to be seen and experienced. Today was begun and ended and muddled in the middle with simple, ordinary pain.
How are you? I am fine, but I’d like to talk to you about pain: physical pain, specifically. And I need to be honest. Because pain tells many, many lies, and maybe putting them down on paper will make the black and white between truth and falsehood a little more clear. Because pain siphons away worth when the group trundles along the street at a faster pace than you can manage; pain taunts your inadequate muscles when the stairs are just too difficult to climb today; pain blots its dreaded inkspots into the agenda of the coming day; pain whispers of a lesser life when your mind is cloudy and your hands shake and your speech stutters in unfamiliar ways. Even those things that you once did or planned to do are not untouched, like the phantom pain of a lost limb. I know it’s something any retiree can tell you: your sleep will become a privilege, clarity of mind a rarity, and even your feet will betray you and keep you where you do not wish to be and lead you where you do not desire to go. I’ve been told that I’m in my prime of life, but pain speaks its classic lie to me as it does to any age: it says that I am not truly living, that I am experiencing less, drifting more, whittled down to joints and muscles and neurons that are all rusting too soon.
I’ve questioned myself: is it my will that is not strong enough? After all, I’m a walking antithesis of every sports t-shirt and self-help slogan: Just Do It, or some other unhelpful phrase. When do I say “I think I can!”, and when do I roll over and take a nap? When do I relinquish the backpack to someone else’s shoulders, and when do I muscle through on my own? When do I stop deciding my day based on the physical factors, and when do I start? When and how do I do both?
Today this was the part of pain that I struggled with: the lie of less. That this different sort of life is somehow less. That this is less when I watch the world from a window and leave my running shoes at the bottom of my suitcase. That this is less as one blissful day of wander and wonder steals the stamina from the next three days. I know it’s a lie. I know that I’m not alone or different or special. You live life tired, live with your own creaks and aches, live with your breath stolen in its own way. Physical pain is universally experienced and individually endured.
I just wish I knew when it was lying to me. Someday maybe I will be able to speak better of pain as a gift, not a lie. Maybe I will be able speak of how it shapes my relationship with the Lord, or how I am living differently–not less–for staying at the bottom of the stairs or handing off the water bottle for someone else to open. I’m not yet ready to declare those with confidence. But in the midst of the lie of less is the first step that I need: wisdom. The physical and the spiritual are not battles I have learned to fight together. Days like today remind me that James’ plea for wisdom is not simply for better spiritual sight or to gain a sort of ephemeral wisdom that takes me to a higher plane of piety. The struggle to know when to push forward and when to stay back is exactly the sort of wisdom I crave, the same wisdom that can recognize the quality of life in the midst of a quantity of pain. There are a million decisions and small struggles for which I am unequipped, but James speaks of confidence before God: that when I bend these knees before the throne in prayer, the Lord gives generously to all without reproach. He does not look at me less because I know so little of how to live like this. He gives as one who intimately knows my every need, who knows the spiritual bent of my soul and the physical bent of my body. He walked here, too. He who gives wisdom knows even the requests to which I cannot give voice.
And the wisdom He is giving in these moments is also what reminds me that my pain is not so bad. There is thankfulness in all things and new mercies every morning. There is the ordinary joy of another day spent travelling in places I never thought possible. There is the simple joy of breakfast at a kitchen table, pressed down and shaken together by the fellowship that does not care that we are eating differently. There is the biting joy of weather I cannot control, sharp with the reminder of the extraordinary Creator who sent it. There is the unacknowledged joy of freedom and taking steps to new places on ground that is steadier than it once was. There are the unrecognized joys of sight and sound and smell and touch and taste, countless unrehearsed joys for the journey. There is the expectant joy of Scripture that speaks truth when all I hear are lies. And there are those who have walked years far beyond mine, who look at these little things with eyes and hearts full of wisdom that has been asked for and granted in undeserved measure.
Maybe missing you,