Why avoiding pain is toxic

How pain is natural but not feeling your pain leads to death.

The nature of pain

Pain in a natural byproduct of living life. There is no way to avoid situations that will bring you pain. History is littered with failed attempts to both have full life and to avoid pain. Even Solomon in all his riches could not avoid the human condition.

But pain feels bad, so if God is good, then pain must be bad. Right? According to the New Testament writers, when Heaven comes to Earth and Jesus comes again, there will be no more pain. So I think ideally that means pain wasn’t meant to be. It must be a product of a fallen world.

But God being good, created a way to turn what was intended to be evil into a tool for glory.

Sadness, and the pain that leads to it, is foundational to empathy and empathy is the foundation that fosters humanity.

The flip side is that when unaddressed, pain turns into something else. Usually rage or bitterness but eventually all of these devolve into despair. Pain is natural but despair is not, because despair murders hope and that is a fate worse than death.

Grief deeper than your pain

In order to release pain before it deforms into its unhealthy cousins we need to feel it fully. Sadness and grief are vessels that when they go deeper than our pain they poke a hole in our pain. In so doing these vehicles release our pain. Once released, it is transformed into something else, and whatever it becomes is the emotional balm that heals our souls.

I don’t know what it gets transformed into, I’m not sure I have the word for it. If you find it let me know.

Lamentation as a vehicle to birth hope

Peoples that have historically been oppressed have experienced deep trauma. What you’ll notice is that traumatized peoples often have highly developed cultures of lamentation.

Take the stories we have in the Bible. Jews in diaspora wrote some of the most beautiful shared language to facilitate lament. This poetry has stood the test of time because it has helped whole peoples, from thousands of years ago until now, to both sit in the worst of humanity and not relinquish hope for it. Sometimes lament can even give birth to hope where no hope could be found before.

Avoidant cultures cultivate despair.

I live in San Francisco and I have never experienced a place more devoted to the avoidance of pain. The way I see it manifested is the avoidance of time alone with our thoughts.

On a given Saturday we take a trip to the redwoods and then visit the some top-rated-on-Yelp pancake place and end the day drinking at the usual bar so that at 2am we can collapse from exhaustion instead of experiencing ten minutes alone with our thoughts. Ten minutes between waking and sleeping where we will have to confront the loneliness we harbor deep inside.

How much carbon are you willing to pump in to the atmosphere, how much alcohol will you push through your liver in order to avoid the grief that will heal your pain? What if it is grief, with all its unpleasantness, that will facilitate healing?

By avoiding that unpleasantness you do a disservice to yourself and the work of God in you. By avoiding pain you are stifling the Spirit as He does the greatest works of reconciliation, healing, and freedom-making that only the Spirit can do. If you pray for miracles of emotional healing and aren’t willing to vulnerably and safely dive into your own pain, you are likely in your own way.

Facilitating grief in the face of horrendous pain.

Some pain is so deep and so old and so without language that a sadness great enough to trigger a release is dangerous. Sometimes attempting to release pain at this level can turn healing grief into destructive despair; with intense trauma the line between the two gets finer and it takes greater skill to facilitate healing.

This is why therapy is so important and so necessary in the healing process. When pain is dangerous, or when despair has already set in, it takes a trained professional to help facilitate safe enough spaces to experience healing grief instead of destructive despair.

Trauma is very real and you don’t have be strong enough to deal with it alone. You have permission to need help. You are human and your humanity is far more beautiful and life giving than just being capable or strong enough to white-knuckle through suffering.

Please reach out to your community for help.

Full presence in pain is key to full life.

I imagine you can conjure to mind someone that you have experienced as very shallow. What language would you use to describe your relationship with them? Probably not full, robust, nor mature. More likely it’s words like fluff or shiny or unreal.

Conjure to mind the best relationship you have ever had. What language does that evoke? Intimate? Deep? Probably not surface level, nor quick or easy.

Being fully present with ourselves and others in the regular human rhythms of emotion, creates intimacy and connection. Those victories, at scale, heal more than just ourselves, they can heal whole peoples and nations.

That’s what I think the Church is for. We are meant to bring Heaven to Earth and that looks like healing and reconciliation. One thing is for sure, if you’re making a habit of avoiding pain you cannot join Jesus as he dives into the brokenness of this world.