I was surfing at one of my favourite breaks down south with a mate a couple of years ago, and it was really good. Pristine, turquoise water, light offshore wind, solid size without being scary. I was super happy to be out there and was looking forward to a morning of ‘water therapy’. However, my euphoric state was short lived as my first wave resulted in me discovering that my patella in my knee was poking out of the side of the leg. The pain was so horrific that I was screaming in agony before I knew that I was screaming. Other surfers started leaving the water because they thought I was being attacked by a shark. I called my friend over and asked him to hold on to me as I popped my knee back into its proper place. I don’t know how I didn’t pass out, I can’t imagine pain any worse than that. It gave me a new appreciation for women in child birth…
As a 19 year old, I experienced 2years of depression and anxiety so bad that I was hospitalised for months. The pain of that period in my life was so extreme that I remember wishing at the time that I had physical pain- rather than emotional distress. CS Lewis writes in his insightful book The Problem of Pain written after the death of his wife, “Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also harder to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say “My tooth is aching” than to say “My heart is broken.” Experiencing this season of depression in my life left me with an empathy for people struggling with mental illness that has helped carve my vocation.
Whether the pain is emotional or physical, it is hard to deal with. Some of us are fortunate enough to go through life with relatively minimal pain, others are not so lucky. Either way, it is a part of life and something we all have to face. Needless to say, it is something I wish wasn’t a part of life.
So what do we do with it? What can we do with it? How can we cope better with pain and suffering? What helps?
Viktor Frankl was a professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at the University of Vienna Medical School and a holocaust survivor. During World War II, he spent three years at Auschwitz, Dachua, and other concentration camps. Through his observations and studies of people in the concentration camps, he emerged with a theory and subsequent existential therapy model called logotherapy. Frankl believed that through the discovery of meaning and purpose, people can endure pain and suffering. He maintained in his brilliant book, Mans Search for Meaning that “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” Frankl proposed that meaning in life can be found in three ways: (1) By creating a work or doing a deed. (2) By experiencing something or encountering someone. (3) By the attitude that we take toward unavoidable suffering
When we experience pain a number of things can happen.
- It gets our attention- so we can potentially address the problem that is causing the pain (ie a toothache)
- If we can’t address or change the problem, we are challenged to change ourselves (ie our attitudes)
- It provokes us to look beyond ourselves to get help
All three of these things are positive. Each of them actually helps us to become more in touch with our own and others humanity. At the core of this, is the vivid reminder of our need for each other.
Some of us don’t have anyone in our lives, we can be alone in the hospital, incarcerated or just afraid to reach out to others. This disconnection is terrible and very real for some people. If you are in that position, please be encouraged to do all you can to connect. For those who are socially connected, maybe consider reaching out to those in the community who are socially isolated. Human beings are tribal by nature, connection is as vital as breathing.
I wish pain didn’t exist, I wish that none of us ever had to go through suffering. But it does and we do. It affects all of us in some way. For us to cope with it better, meaning is key. Perhaps at the core of that meaning is the reminder of our humanity… and at the centre of our humanity is our need for each other. Pain can help us to do ‘each other’ better. It can help us to love better and allow ourselves to be loved better too.
You don’t have to be alone in your pain.