The Constant Convert
Pain Avoidance and the Acceptable Time
Now is a very acceptable time. ~ 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2
When I was preparing to give birth to one of my kids, my OB asked if I'd be wanting the epidural. I told her I wanted to try it naturally this time, and she put down her clipboard, turned around to face me and said, "You know, there's no prize for enduring the most pain."
I knew that natural childbirth wasn't going to better me in relation to other women, or even in relation to my past experiences when I'd had the epidural. But I also instinctively knew that there was something in it for me. I wasn't hungry for pain, but I expected to be even more grateful for the reprieve in the aftermath of childbirth, having been purified by trial.
Having babies is rather a big ticket item in the realm of pain endurance. I've always been penny-wise, dollar-foolish. I can embrace the tragic and the unbearable, but I'll do anything to avoid the minor discomforts of being a normal person functioning through the un-heroic daily acts of being human. I hate having allergies. I don't like loud talking, or getting out of chairs quickly.
Perhaps the purest evidence of my unwillingness to deal with the pain of living in a body is the frequency with which I reach for anesthetics like sugar and web surfing; like keeping the music shuffling through exercise; like daydreaming.
Sadly, though, avoiding little discomforts, numbing oneself to life's physical impertinences, ends up numbing the soul as well.
Trent Reznor wrote a song in the '90s called "Hurt." Johnny Cash's cover of the song is even better. The lyrics go:
I hurt myself today
to see if I still feel.
I focus on the pain
the only thing that's real.
My freshman year of college, my roommate and I would play this song on repeat. After roughly a semester of party life, and of doing everything we could to mute the barbs of conscience, I remember feeling like I needed to cajole my body for signs of any remaining spiritual life. At one point I intentionally tripped myself on the concrete in attempts to skin my knee.
I just wanted a little sting—a little hurt where and when I knew I could take it.
Fortunately, I have since learned that there are ways to re-awaken the soul that don't involve intentionally wounding the flesh. After taking advantage of the Sacrament of Confession, and regular participation in the Mass, one easy way to enliven the soul is admitting it when we are in rather miserable circumstances, uniting them to Christ, and then allowing ourselves to feel all the emotional and physical discomfort those circumstances entail.
Four o'clock in the afternoon at our house can be one of the most stressful hours of the day. Everyone's hungry and has places to go, and all the loud talking reaches its highest, most terrible pitch. It's a time when everyone's needs converge at once. This is the time of day when I'm least disposed to accept bodily purifications. I'd rather flee the scene—through fantasy, by shuffling through the cupboards for chocolate, by pouring a glass of wine, or by checking online.
I want an anesthetic, to be able to live at a psychological distance from my discomfort.
This Lent, without access to all my usual vices, I've had to admit to myself, even say it out loud sometimes, that I am not ready to fill the God-shaped hole in my heart with God. I would prefer to trade one addiction for another, and skate past the moment of pain and longing to easier times ahead.
Disengagement from the present, grumbling about difficulties, psychologically avoiding them, is a means of rejecting God's providence for my life. When I say, "No God. I don't want this moment you've prepared for me," I commit a calumny against God's will.
Now is a very acceptable time. Accept it.
Anesthetics are temporary. Hunger is replaced by yet a new craving. Be in the desert with Christ, even if it means realizing for the moment that we are empty, that we have need, and that need causes excruciating pain.
Only then can we begin to understand what Christ did for us in love, which is the true prize for our endurance.
Elizabeth Duffy is a freelance writer and author of the blog, "Betty Duffy." Her writing has appeared online at Faith and Family, the Korrektiv Press Blog, and numerous other venues. She and her husband live in rural Indiana with their five children.