I’ve been planning this week to write a year ending post on how we carry pain. It started with sitting in a bookstore coffee shop last weekend, waiting for my wife and daughter to come back from exchanging Christmas gifts. (thankfully I’ve learned not to buy clothes for my all-female family, as they would just get exchanged as quickly as possible for something in style.) So there I was, a captive audience (trying to read my book but couldn’t help listening) as two ladies next to me (and the table was very close) shared with each other for the next 90 minutes their deep pain particularly in the area of failed relationships. One was in her mid-30’s, and one probably in her mid-70’s, but both shared deep loneliness, deep pain and deep disappointment with men and life in general.
How do we carry pain? Most of us have our own areas of disappointment and sense of grief and loss. But for a fortunate few, it may not be our own struggles that haunt us as we end 2016, but rather the pain of those we love, care and pray for. We all carry pain in different ways. For many it is common to live in denial and attempt to medicate the pain away. Recently I came across some startling statistics related to addiction to pain-relieving drugs, or opioids. According to ASAM (American Society of Addiction Medicine), over 2 million Americans in 2016 had a substance use disorder with prescription pain relievers like oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, and others. This is part of the global number of between 26.4 to 36 million people who struggle with this area.
There are certainly very legitimate reasons to use these kinds of pain relievers at times due to chronic or immediate issues, but the danger exists of a continuance leading to addiction. It is deeply disturbing to learn that every day 91 Americans die of an overdose from opioids, including heroin. We are a society filled with pain, fear and disappointed expectations. How to carry pain, whether physical or emotional, is certainly one of the most important life skills we can learn.
It was with some of these thoughts running through my brain that I went to a movie with my wife last night. We may have wanted something light, and a bit escapist, but we had already watched the first Die Hard movie just before Christmas. (yes, it is a Christmas movie!) So on a recommendation from our daughter (who actually hadn’t seen it yet) we went to see a movie called Fences. Two of the most talented actors of our generation, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, are the two main stars. It is worth going to for the acting alone. The performances are spectacular. But it is the plot and the deep shades of complexity in facing pain that also caught my attention. Without giving away anything of what happens, the movie explores the failed dreams of a baseball star (Washington) who had been very successful in the Negro leagues before World War II, but had been too old when the racial barriers began to fall with the entry of Jackie Robinson and others into an integrated Major League.
Fences is about how we carry pain and disappointment, whether as the teenage son, the long suffering wife (Viola Davis), or the main character’s brother who had suffered a brain injury in the war. It is one of those movies that ends with the theater completely silent. I almost couldn’t move at the end, and just sat there staring at the screen. It was one of those movies where you have a great discussion with the person you saw it with, in this case my wife and I once we could talk again.
One of my favorite writers on the spiritual life, Father Richard Rohr, says that “Spirituality is always eventually about what you do with your pain. It seems our culture has lost its own spiritual foundation and center, and as a result we no longer know what to do with universal pain. If we do not transform our pain, we will always transmit it-to our partner, our spouse, our children, our friends, our coworkers, our ‘enemies’.”
Carrying pain must start with embracing it. Not denying it, not covering it up, but being authentic in living a quality of life that deals strongly with resentment and disappointments as they develop. Here’s some ways to carry your pain or the pain of others as we start a new year. First, don’t deny it but live even more deeply into it. How do we do that? By recognizing that in every difficult circumstance there is an opportunity to love either ourselves or others more deeply. Not to turn away from ourself in judgement, or others, but to love more deeply. Judging himself and others was one of the greatest fences that Denzel Washington’s character struggled with.
Second, have someone to talk the pain over with, to cry with, even to just touch you with an embracing human contact. As I listened to the two ladies next to me in the coffee shop pour out their hearts, I found myself praying for them, wishing I could just turn to them and say “you are loved so much!” But I was struck by how they could be going on for some time about their own pain, then all of a sudden they would ask a question of the other and hold the pain of their friend. They were experiencing human community in that moment, a community of pain and grief. It is the suffocating aloneness that can be one of the strongest fences in our lives. As the character in Fences builds a physical fence in his yard, his friend wonders if he is building it to keep people out, or keep himself and his family in.
Finally, we must carry our pain or the pain of others in hope, knowing that there is always a larger context of grace around us. At the end of the movie, that larger context is revealed (don’t worry, I’m not telling!!). It is a context that has the hope of eternity, the hope of the fact that someday there will be no more fences, no more isolation or need for protection from evil or disappointment or fear or pain.
2016 has not been an easy year for many. There has been a divisive election in the US, terrorist attacks around the world, beloved public figures dying too soon. As we go into 2017, we carry pain. For some there is a deep desire to build or maintain fences to keep fear out, only to find it is within and no fences can keep it out.
Yet there is also hope, alive and real. Hope that will one day overwhelm all fences, and bring healing for all eternity to our pain and suffering.