The truth about dealing with pain is that, despite our best efforts to hide it, we are all doing it. Nobody really wants to talk about it in our super-achieving, social-media-driven, image-conscious and affluent culture.
Sadly, rather than dealing with pain, we tend to medicate it. We run or hide or distract from it. We eat or drink it away, or over program our lives to avoid it. Maybe we build walls of protection from it like humor or sarcasm so we don’t feel it. Or we weave webs of image and material success so no one will ever know we still, underneath all those things, are dealing with pain.
I lived intimately with pain, desperately trying to hold it all in a tidy stack, until a gust blew it all into the wind beyond my reach. Once it was out of my grip, it wreaked havoc in my life until I learned how to call it by name and tame it to submission. (i.e. I learned how to submit to it.)
The surprising part of this process, and the fact that like a crazy person I’ve put all this pain out onto an internet billboard for the world to read, is that it’s earned me quiet, tender, and precious invitations into the pain stories of other people. When you tell your story, it gives other people permission – and courage – to examine their own. In a world of pain, community can be the first step to finding some peace and relief.
Everyone is hurting, somehow. Sometimes it’s “little,” like cutting words or severed friendships or social pressure. (Though we all know by now that pain is not little at all. It’s devouring our youth and crushing a generation of spirits in schools all over the country. But that is another thought for another day.)
Sometimes that pain is big, like a fraying marriage or grief over loss or uncertainty over the future. Life-altering things that are completely out of our control.
What I have learned is that pain is pain.
No matter how small its source, pain takes root in even the most grateful and gentle spirits and contorts our thinking and behavior beyond recognition. You can only run from pain for a time. It will continue to show up. At some point it will catch up. It will persist after and outlast the most stubborn soul.
I suppose it is possible to try to live without pain… but that would require no relationships, no effort, no goals, no ambition, and no significance. Essentially, a vacuum. And though many of us try to avoid pain by attempting to create such a vacuum, that is not real life.
The encouraging thing here is that pain is designed to teach us something. Physical pain is easy to observe and understand: our fingertips sense heat so we don’t repeatedly touch a stove. Our minds feel fear to protect us from danger (think cavemen and sabertooth tigers).
Spiritual pain is a little more messy. It’s not so tangible, and so it’s easier to ignore. Heartbreak will grow us… or choke us. If we choose to shine a light on it, and really work to become better through it, it is the most transformative tool for growth we have.
But because pain pressures us to suffer in solitude, it has overwhelming power to warp our sense of self and distort our view of other people and the reality we live in. In a nutshell – we sentence ourselves to solitary confinement to try to understand things that just don’t make sense. And the more we spin trying to make sense of the illogical, the crazier we feel.
You cannot do this pain thing alone. I know. I tried and I failed. A wise friend asked me recently, “Who is caring for you? It’s the people who seem strongest that the rest of us forget to check in on.” (This offering was balm for my soul and made my breath catch in my chest. Don’t underestimate the potential of simple words to speak profoundly to another human heart.)
So, strong ones: I am checking on you. What are you running from? Or hiding from?
If you are dealing with pain:
Stop. Pause. Breathe.
I promise you – it may feel as though you’re outrunning what hurts your heart, but you cannot do it forever, and there is peace waiting for you when you plant your feet and simply be still. Reschedule that thing you think you can’t reschedule, say no to the thing you think you can’t say no to. The world will still be turning when you come back to it tomorrow with a refreshed spirit.
Stare it in the face and call it by name.
We as a culture have gotten really good at glossing over what’s real in favor of what looks and sounds good. I choked some personal pain back this week until yesterday I finally told my husband, “I feel sad because ___.”
**If your initial reaction to that idea was to roll your eyes and believe that only children or weak adults voice this feeling, I would gently encourage you to put the sword down and ask yourself why you reacted so. What pain in your own spirit is causing you to judge another for voicing their pain? You cannot give grace to others without first giving grace to yourself. Pain is real. Even yours. It’s part of our human condition and there is nothing weak or shameful about acknowledging it.
Acknowledge the pain you feel, stare it in the face, and call it by name. Only then will you be able to move forward out of its grip. Journaling is a helpful tool for this. If the words feel ugly or awkward or scary coming out, congratulations – you’re doing it right. Nobody ever has to see those words but you.
Walk out of solitary confinement.
Pain multiplies when we go it alone. Research is showing that the “loneliness epidemic” is one of the newest and highest indicators of early mortality, surpassing obesity. WE CAN FIX THIS. Reach out. Find someone trustworthy who will honor – and never belittle – your aching spirit. They don’t have to have all the answers (and reality check: they won’t). But they can listen, and “be with” you. You are never burdening someone by inviting them into the innermost chambers of your heart. Some people wait their entire lives to be asked to be known. Don’t let loneliness multiply your pain.
There are millions of self-help books on shelves all over the world written to help us do millions of things. Lose weight, earn more money, have better relationships, etc. But I believe if we can start dealing with pain in a more intentional way, we won’t need many of those books anymore.
Learning from pain will bring peace, clarity, confidence, vision, awareness, and a quiet belief in the idea that the hard stuff really is there to teach us and make us better. Not just better for our own sake, but for God to use as a stronger voice for other people. Your pain is trying to teach you something. Your story matters. And you may have no idea whose life will be changed forever once you have the courage to tell it.
Braving the Wilderness by Dr. Brené Brown
The Power of Vulnerability by Dr. Brené Brown (4th most-watched TED talk of all time)