As I get older (I am often referring to myself lately as “middle aged,” as young adulthood fades into the past as a faint memory), I am experiencing more pain in my everyday life. Things that never used to cause stress or injury can now suddenly change the course of my whole day–the way my head laid on the pillow last night, for instance, or the fact that getting out of bed can mysteriously put my back out. My right knee seems to have developed a recurring pain that is hard to describe and seems to follow no discernible pattern as to when it appears. Yes I am overweight and out of shape, but even for a schlub like me it seems like aches and pains seem to come out of nowhere. Pain has become, if not a daily part of my life, at least a significant enough part of it that I keep Tylenol in my desk drawer at work.
Huffing and puffing my way to work the other day, I pondered as I walked, “What if I approached my pain the same way I do other difficulties in life?” That is to say, what would happen if I stopped complaining about my pain and started asking what it might be teaching me. I’ve tried this approach with some success in my interpersonal relationships. As a naturally introverted person who is also highly sensitive, or perhaps “high-strung,” a quality I have had applied to me, I sometimes have a hard time dealing with difficult people. So, on the advice of a spiritual director, I began asking myself, “What is God trying to teach me through this person?” It’s really annoying, because it often results in me being more understanding of the situation, and I suddenly have to admit that the other person isn’t as much of a jerk as I thought they were–drives me nuts!
Lately, I’ve started asking, “What is my pain trying to teach me?” and I’ve come up with some interesting answers:
- My bodily pain is the most obvious, and I think what it is trying to teach me is that I need to slow down, respect my body more, and take care of myself. Gone are the days when I could bound out of bed, eat and drink whatever I want, do whatever I want, stay up late, and be fine the next day. Those days are actually long gone, but I’m just now realizing that fact. I’ve caught myself trying to go too fast sometimes, and made a conscious effort to slow down. Not that I’m advocating sloth-like movement through life, but I certainly am more mindful of how I go about the world.
- I’ve also experienced the pain of misunderstandings, miscommunication, and misreading the people around me. This is a pain that has been around for a while–it’s an inevitable part of life–but more recently it’s also been more draining than it was previously. Like the lesson that I need to slow down, this pain has taught me to move slowly with my relationships to other people, and to set appropriate boundaries so I don’t get frustrated or lash out inappropriately when I feel stressed.
- Spiritual pain doesn’t come as often–I’ve experienced it, for sure, but it usually takes a lot longer to build up to the point where I notice it. When I feel lost or alone in the world, or like this whole following Jesus thing is just getting to be too exhausting, asking that pain what it can teach me has led me to the conclusion that spiritual pain is a reminder that my relationship to God is just that–a relationship–and like any relationship, it needs to be nurtured over time. There are no shortcuts to relationship, especially with the Divine, so patience really is a virtue here.
Pain is a teacher. All of us learn through pain, and some of us can only learn through pain. As I reflect on what the next part of my life will look like, I know that I need to listen to my various aches and pains. After all, my body, mind, and spirit are always with me, so I might as well enjoy the ongoing conversation between my various parts and the pains that cause me to pause and take inventory of who I am and what I’m doing with this gift called life.
OK, reading back over this, it feels very mushy and squishy, and not very Grump-like at all. But it’s my truth, and that’s all I have to work with.
Yours in Pain (Sometimes),