painful purposiveness

Pain hurts. A lot.

For these past few months, I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around chronic pain and how it’s found its way into my daily life. I have long believed that everything in life is potentially meaningful. And I want to find a meaning to glean from this.

To be frank, I’ve been thinking about pain when I should be thinking about other things—like how well a certain student answered the prompt on the final exam I’m grading, or how a certain thinker interprets Paul Grice’s theory of meaning (for my dissertation), or how I can be there for a couple of friends who are undergoing a painful divorce.

But the thing is, the pain is insistent and impolite. I’ll be in the middle of a particularly difficult passage of meaning theory, a passage that requires at least three careful reads and full mental attention, and there it will be, demanding I focus on it instead of my work. I’ll be listening to a friend who’s coming to terms with his coming out, sharing his burden of powerful familial upheaval, and there it’ll be, insisting I think about me instead of my friend. Yesterday, a friend told me about her recent walking of a marathon, and how the next day, she could hardly move for the pain, and my sympathy leapt instantly into changing the subject about me. I understand because I have pain all the time.


It isn’t about me in these times. Yet it seems quite often, if not almost always, to come back to me—or at least to this everpresent pain.

I have a good friend of 22 years who has lupus. When we talk nowadays, it seems often to involve a longish interlude about pain management. Then we joke about having prematurely become the stereotypical elderly ladies standing in the pharmacy aisle talking about aches and pains and swapping medication stories. But she’s found a way to use her chronic pain for others: she is a regional director of the lupus foundation, and she somehow, through the mind-blur that the pain often brings, facilitates support groups and other selfless activities.

Years ago when I was in a leadership position in church, there were these ‘accountability’ groups for leaders. They were prayer and fellowship groups, mostly, to give leaders a place to not have to be leaders. One woman in my group led the Death and Dying support group. Her name was Christy, and she had terminal bone cancer. To this day, Christy is my hero. She was in constant pain, but I never once heard her complain. I recall, once, she reached up to switch on a light, and we all heard her bone snap. Her arm broke just like that. The cure was just as bad as the cancer, eating away at her marrow. But her whole life was about reconciling people to each other, about showing God’s love and grace, and she did far more living in her dying than I’ve done even since she’s died. She found a meaning in her pain.

It was never about her, any more than it is ever about Marilee in her activities. Both found ways to channel their pain into compassion for others.

This isn’t to say either denied the pain existed or pretended it to be anything other than it is. There are days when Marilee just can’t function. And she follows medical recommendations carefully. But the point is that she sees her condition as something communal, something shared by others whom she can support with her experiences and hard-earned knowledge, from whom, as a consequence, she will glean friendship and support. She uses her pain to build community.

And Christy did the same. When I met her, she was in Hospice care, already having outlived her time by over a year. And she saw every day she had as something to be given to reconciliation and support. She used the pain as a reminder of the shortness of her time, and the uncertainty of what she had. I watched her do things, emboldened by the painful reminder, that those of us whose time is equally uncertain would never dare. And as a consequence, people who wouldn’t speak reconciled to each other, many were inspired, and those of us in her accountability group were awed and humbled.

So now it’s all these years later, and I have joined the chronic pain club (huzzah). And I see three avenues before me. The first is to follow in the footsteps of those who become bitter or angry, who are self-absorbed by their pain (and understandably so; it sucks to hurt all the time). I could get crabby and tell the world how unfair it is that I hurt all the time.

The second is to stick my chin out and bear it stoically. I could be like those who carry the pain with a sort of martyr mindset. Endure it, treat it, but keep it to myself. Be strong. Be silent. And be alone.

The third is to find the meaning, to create a meaning out of the pain. I could be like Marilee and Christy—and like others I know and admire—who have seen beyond themselves and the constant reminder of themselves that the pain brings, and who have used their pain as a gateway through which they walk out to the world, a gateway of grace and compassion.

The third seems to me to be by far the most difficult option. At least for me, it’s really easy to get bitchy. And I was raised my whole life to keep the bitchiness to myself, so to stay quiet about it. After watching certain people close to me be bitchy about pain, I determined never to be that way should I encounter pain. So I’ve long trained myself to be stoical. To distance myself from the pain. But though harder, indeed much harder, than sinking into bitterness, stoicism (of this sort) is still far simpler than forging meaning from pain. The pain-enduring stoic can focus on just rising above it, not having to worry about making something of it that extends beyond herself. Sure, she can use the pain to become a ‘stronger’ person, but to what end?

The third option, then, is the one I am trying to make as my own. And I find it a rocky, sometimes unpaved, sometimes unmarked, always difficult way. Unlike the other options, this one makes a person vulnerable—actually, this one is such that the person makes herself vulnerable. It’s embracing the pain as a useful, and in some self-transcendent way, beneficial part of life. And that gives rise to another difficulty—balance. Where’s the balance between embracing one’s pain as some transformative good and managing it properly? Between rising above it and through it to speak grace into the world and focusing on it enough to treat whatever treatability there is? So in some odd way, this third way requires one to walk in a neo-Aristotelian mean—that middle way between focusing always on the pain and ignoring it.

This mean is so hard to define because it is, of necessity, unique to each individual. Sure, there are obvious extremes that are extremes for anyone. But finding that right balance of pain management and transformative opportunity depends wholly on what each life involves. Aristotle calls the excellence of living rightly a mean between extremes—a way of acting in regards to certain things (in this case, pain) in the right way, at the right time, for the right reasons, with the right people, and to the right degree. And finding this balance, at least for me right now, is very difficult.

Aristotle argued that it was habit that made virtuous people. We become excellent at doing things via practice. So I suppose the right thing now is not to try to figure out what the balance is, but to step out and act, and find that balance in the doing, in the daily walking of the path.

And so I now open that third gate that opens my life into a pilgrimage through pain.


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