Outside of the gates the trucks were unloadin’
The weather was hot, a-nearly ninety degrees
The man standin’ next to me, his head was exploding
Well, I was prayin’ the pieces wouldn’t fall on me
––Bob Dylan, Day of the Locusts
The after effects of the tooth infection that nearly made my head explode are slowly going away. The memory of the pain and swelling sits like a band of angry storm clouds on the horizon after a wild summer storm.
Pain is the humbling influence in all living things. While out running, I once happened on a large raccoon that had been struck by a car and crawled into the bushes to die. I wanted to put the animal out of its misery but had no means to do so. And to realize that the scene was likely playing out on a thousand streets across America with a thousand raccoons bleeding and dying gave me a guilty conscience the rest of the run.
So much pain
Realizations like these can lead to some emphatically existential questions, such as: “Why so much pain in this world?” The Judeo-Christian answer to that question is that pain is the curse and the cost of sin. That’s what religious tradition tells us anyway.
I don’t entirely trust religious tradition to all its supposed truths. In fact I’m nearly finished writing a book titled Rescuing Christianity… from Drowning in Tradition. I’ve changed the title just this week as the edits are being completed. I wrote a friend who I greatly trust to excoriate literary frailty and he let me know the previous title was a washed out and cloying attempt at appealing to readers.
“Don’t bury the fucking lead,” he’s been known to say. And I have that habit. We’re all called to be more forthright in this world. It is ours to say what we mean with clarity and conciseness. But most of all, be honest. That is authenticity.
That brings us back to the many reasons why there is so much pain in this world. It is not, as tradition tells us, the result of a single curse caused long ago by two mythical people and a talking Serpent. We know this for certain because pain is divided into several specific categories. There is physical pain, which is manifested in the body. There is emotional pain, which is manifested in the mind. There is ancillary pain, which we feel in empathy of others. And there is existential pain, which we feel about the world.
To claim that all conveniently fits under the Fall of Man seems rather cynical. And besides, that terminology leaves out women, who by nature of their gender experience types of pain that men never do. So religious tradition leaves out quite a bit in its patriarchal notion that only men own and understand the concept of pain.
There is another whole dimension to all this. Certainly one type of pain has been known to overwhelm the other. When we’re in steep physical pain, as I recently experienced, from something like the inflammation of an infected tooth that leaked into the sublingual space and threatens our very lives, emotional pain is certainly there, but gets pushed to the side. And when a dental surgeon stands in front of you and says, “We need to fix this, or you could die,” that is the moment when you realize there is such as thing as spiritual pain. As in, what if I cease to exist?
Living with pain
Some believe that we carry our souls around with us as we got through this life, and this world. Perhaps that is why we choose to pursue soul-searching activities that test us through all types of pain. Pushing pain to the side is an art we human beings need to learn through repetition. Those of us who swim, run and ride for “fun” learn that pain is a regular companion. Some great distance runner once said, and I paraphrase “If you try to run through the pain, you will never succeed. But if you learn to run with the pain, you can achieve great things.”
That’s right. Pain is a companion that we actually need to learn to welcome in our lives. Far from being the curse wrought by Adam and Eve, pain is the greatest instructor in our universe. You’ll find that when you read past the renditions of scripture wrought by biblical literalists, an entire other world of thought and insight awaits you. And when it comes to pain, we find that God uses it as a teaching tool. He even allows Satan to vex Job with painful sores to test the man’s faith, which I think rather cruel, but in my opinion, God is not so perfect. The Lord even challenges a father to sacrifice a son under the knife as a test of commitment. And he finally sacrifices his own Son through a passage of bloody torture and crucifixion. From those lessons we might draw the conclusion that God is a concept by which we measure our pain. And I didn’t think that up. John Lennon wrote that.
Pain is not easy to accommodate when it enters our life with such force that it renders us helpless but for the next set of pain pills or a visit to the dentist. But if we’re smart, we’ll learn a few things from the experience. We all live with pain of one kind or another in our lives. I invite you to think back on painful moments in your life, even a race that really hurt, and think about how much it taught you about your personal character and what you actually believe in. Pain is both the great instructor and the great revealer. Think hard and long on what it tells you about yourself. That is where the meaning of life is revealed.