Going Towards the Pain

When I was trying to decide whether to go into seminary, I took a course called CPE-- Clinical Pastoral Education. It's required for almost every single seminary student, but laypersons can take the first unit too, if they are interviewed and approved. The unit involves 8 hours a week of "clinic time," where you go and visit patients (and their families) and about 12 hours a week of "class"-ish time, which consisted of weekly group meetings, weekly one-on-ones, and an actual lecture (plus one-page "reflection papers" every week).

One of the first chaplaincy axioms I learned was, "Go towards the pain." Most of us instinctually avoid pain-- which is why, when someone brings up their dead husband, our reaction is often to say, "He's in a better place," or change the subject, or hastily utter my personal favorite*, "Everything happens for a reason."

It's a normal instinct, but as chaplains it was our job to get over our own discomfort with pain in order to help the person or people look their grief or anger or sadness in the face. You know how, when you pour your heart out to someone, they usually go, "Oh, yeah, that happened to me once...." You appreciate that they're relating, but have you ever had someone just say to you, "Wow, that must have been truly awful," or had them repeat back what you just said? That's going towards the pain. It means lending someone your strength so they can explore something that they, at that moment, might not have the strength to. It's believed, in the chaplaincy discipline, that this is the only way to heal someone (although it's not always easy to do, and we all struggle to do it).

I learned something during CPE about pain: it's absolutely precious, and vital to our physical and emotional health. Pain is a red flag that tells us something is terribly, terribly wrong, it's our body's (and our heart's) way of bringing our attention to a problem that needs to be dealt with, like, NOW. The other funny thing about pain is that it won't go away unless you address it somehow. With the pain of grief, a part of us is dying, and we need to give that pain special attention so that we will eventually heal-- otherwise, the pain goes on and on. With depression, we can ask ourselves what's hurting us in our lives (maybe we've just lost someone?), or how it is that we're living a life that we no longer want. The anger at hurt feelings is a red flag telling us we need to speak up or look inwards, or both.

OK, so, if pain is vital and instructive, and if sometimes going towards it and sitting with it is so good for us, what's the worst thing we can possibly do when confronted with pain?

Cover it up. Deny that it's there.

Sometimes I feel like our national credo is, "Deny, deny, deny." It causes many women pain to chase the beauty standard, so what do we do? We offer surgery to those who can afford it, moving the culprit not to an obsession with youth and beauty but to your saggy butt and developing wrinkles, all of which-- hooray!-- can be covered up. We wear makeup, we spend our days off shopping, putting us in more debt which keeps us working those jobs that force us to sit down for nine hours a day staring at a computer screen.

Our healthcare system is utterly failing, and while I won't pretend to know exactly why, I can't help but notice that about 75% of the patients I saw in the hospital were either slightly or very obese. Honestly. It's no secret that Americans are fat... but why? We're suffering, all of us, because of our food (fast food etc.) and our lack of activity (nine hours a day sitting at a desk), and it's costing us billions and billions of dollars. Have you ever noticed how much more expensive it is to eat healthfully than to go to WalMart and buy chips? The less money you have, the more overweight you are likely to be. How did that happen?

We watch TV to dull the pain of having no sense of community outside of work and where we shop. We drink too much so that we can touch our emotions. I feel like every time I turn around I hear someone saying, "I'm/ my mom/ my dad is bipolar II." Does it seem to you like EVERYONE is "bipolar" nowadays? Now, some people genuinely are and should get help for that (not that they would have an easy time of it), but with this rash of putting moody people on medication and stamping them with a stigma like that I have to ask: What's going on? It's gotta be one of three things: either normal mood swings that are occurring in response to the world are being pathologized; psychiatrists are diagnosis-happy; or, the world we've made is literally driving us crazy. Whether it's a result of bad parenting or weak children or lame clergy or whatever, most of us are on medication of some kind so that we can get through the day. How can we possibly keep ignoring the implications of that?

We managed, through collective ignorance and a misplaced sense of nationalism, to wound an area of the world so badly that they spent decades planning an attack on our soil to get our attention, and then we went over there and killed more of them. The economy collapsed, and we're all in an enormous amount of debt because of our collective cultural emphasis on the pursuit of more, and our worship of money (think about Wall Street-- people like that wouldn't exist in a culture that didn't reward avarice, and as long as we were comfortable in our own lives we didn't care what they did). We're losing two wars (some say three) and an enormous number of Americans are struggling to meet their basic needs. The rest of the world is summarily fed up with us. (Don't believe me? Try going overseas and see if you can ignore the latent hostility.)

I'm not saying that we deserved 9/11, or that we're somehow paying for our sins in the economic collapse. But we appear to be in an awful lot of pain, both from ourselves and others, and we seem to be devoting all our energy to denying that there's anything wrong-- with us, with our culture that worships money and beauty, with our foreign policy, with our general approach to life. In psychiatry, if someone persistently believes that the world is unfairly judgmental towards them, that everyone else just hates them because they're awesome, you know what that's a sign of? Sociopathy. Which is more likely: That we're doing it right and everyone else hates us for it, or we're doing it wrong and other countries, our bodies, our very selves, are trying to tell us so?

The wonderful thing about "touching the pain" in chaplaincy is that it's always possible, and it never (contrary to the patient's completely normal fear) destroys the patient. I can't tell you how many times I helped someone see that their pain was coming from a persistent habit of theirs, something they would never have known if they hadn't had the courage to sit with their pain instead of blaming or running or engaging in any number of other methods we use to avoid feeling anguish. They changed their lives because they went towards the pain.

Pain is an invaluable indicator that change needs to take place, and we all as individuals have the power to choose whether to cover it up, numb it, or sit with it fearlessly, knowing that it can't kill us. What can kill us (and is-- obesity, psychiatric issues, 9/11, etc.) is an unwillingness to admit that we're hurting. And while I'm saying that yes, we do need to change the culture in which we live, it's not The Man's responsibility to change it for us. It's our responsibility to ask ourselves what we're learning from the forces that surround us, and how we're contributing to a set of values and ideals that clearly isn't working any more.

And then we get to decide: What can I do differently? If you ask that question and take that responsibility, wonderful, amazing things are happening on the other side of your fear.

I promise.

*And by "favorite," of course, I mean, "I wish those words would never be allowed together in a sentence ever again, ESPECIALLY out of the mouths of religious leaders."


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  2. "everything happens for a reason" is bad theology. Which is worse, that or "when God opens a door he opens a window"? (don't get me started on the pronoun for God)...

  3. Wow, Lauren, I am reading some of your blog posts after stumbling upon your modesty experiment on my facebook wall. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and your feelings. Good luck to you and I am glad you are finding love for yourself and a new love. God's Blessings to you.

  4. Hi Heather,

    Thanks so much for commenting, and for reading! It's been a fabulous experience, and even more so because others (especially women) can relate.

    Blessings to you too!