Responding to pain

I’ve been fortunate over the years to have needed very little dental work. Perhaps this made me a bit blasé since, when I went for my recent check-up, I really had waited too long and a filling was needed. Don’t you hate that? Especially annoying is the fact that in the process of drilling, cleaning and filling, a nearby nerve has become very irritated and is still giving me pain.

Anyway, anything can be a prompt towards thoughtful engagement with ourselves and God. Even toothache, as it turns out.

It got me thinking about the ways in which trauma or trials disturb deeply rooted things in our lives, causing us discomfort and pain. Something that we had been unaware of for years suddenly gets bumped or poked and then, there it is, that old flare in a place of wounding or irritation that just won’t be ignored.

What are those places for you? 

None of us can escape the shortcomings or misdeeds of others, whether as part of our original families, our educational experiences, or our cultural contexts. Before we get to be very old, we have invariably taken on board some damaging untruths about ourselves - imagined or intended - that take many of us years to undo. We become extremely adept at ignoring or accommodating these areas of soreness, to the extent that we can be oblivious to their effects in our lives. Until something disturbs the root and then, ouch, the pain has a reach that far exceeds what would be expected from the little prod we received.

Ever wondered why you reacted so strongly to some small slight or misunderstanding? Have you noticed any patterns to those reactions? We often blame our personalities, but most likely there is an area of pain underneath that reaction that is usually so deep under the surface that you don’t know it’s there. Often these moments of searing emotion create so much confusion or shame that we do all we can to ignore them, and continue on as before. Could it be that these flashes of awareness are an invitation to engage those deeper parts of ourselves?

help in reflecting

Asking questions of ourselves and God can be one way to stop and pay attention to what is happening. I came across the set of questions laid out below (can’t recall where I found them, they long ago became a series of scribbles in a notebook) and have found them very helpful in my own times of journalling and reflection.

1. What am I grateful for today? And how does God respond to my gratitude? 

By starting in this positive place, we create heart openness and security to better welcome reflection on more uncomfortable things.

2. How does God see me and my physical state in this moment?

Since we all hold much of our emotions in our bodies, this is an opportunity to become aware of how our bodies are responding to, and thus revealing, our inner state.

3. What does God hear me saying to myself? 

Often our internal dialogue helps to point us to where we are somehow compensating for inner pain.

4. How does God see my dreams, blessings, upsets and troubles? 

Perhaps God has a helpful perspective to share with you that will open up new ways of seeing and engaging.

5. How is God expressing His desire to participate in my life? 

This is a moment to remind ourselves that He is, indeed, participating in our lives; that we are not alone in this moment but are accompanied by His committed and loving presence.

6. What is God giving me for this moment, or this season? 

God’s desire is to empower us to respond to our present circumstances in ways that make room for His goodness to flow. What might He be offering to you that will help, strengthen and heal you? How do you want to respond?

It can be especially helpful to write out your responses to these questions. Not only is it insightful to read them back later, but also the process of writing can help us to get in touch with thoughts and feelings, or slivers of awareness, that we would tend to skip over if we were just thinking things through.

I’m still not sure how I feel about this toothache. My dentist says it will settle down but that, if it doesn’t, it’s an indication that more extensive work is needed. I’m holding out for recovery without further painful intervention. When it comes to pain - physical or emotional - Timothy Keller writes that, “Suffering is meaningful. There is a purpose to it, and if faced rightly, it can drive us like a nail deep into the love of God and into more stability and spiritual power than you can imagine.”

That little phrase, ‘If faced rightly’ should be the thing that stops us in our tracks. Whatever the nature of your suffering - whether the odd confusing emotional flare-up, or deep-rooted anger or shame - may you find your way to face it rightly, and thus find yourself driven more deeply into the love of God. (If you sense that it would be helpful to process further with a spiritual director, then get in touch and I will do my best to help you find the right person.)