Please Don’t Numb Your Pain!
We all experience pain in this life. No one emerges unscathed. We might wish and hope and pray not to experience pain, loss, and suffering, but this is our common lot. Also, common to humanity is the temptation to numb our pain.
Numbing our pain can come in a variety of ways, but it seems to be the normal way of “dealing” in our modern world. We numb with constant busyness. We numb with accumulating and consuming more and more. We numb with relationships and sexuality. We numb with substances. Anything that might seem to “take the pain away” is fair game. Perhaps, the most popular form of numbing is denial or ignoring pain. This might occur by itself or in conjunction with other numbing “strategies.”
Numbing our pain might sound like a great option, a preferable option. However, it comes with significant risk. First and foremost, we can’t shut down just a part of our heart. When we numb the pain, we also numb our ability to feel other things like joy and peace and delight. Second, Larry Crabb, in his book Shattered Dreams, suggests:
“People who learn to deaden their pain never discover their desire for God in all its fullness. They rather live for relief and become addicts to whatever provides it. Think with me about how this works. Inconsolable pain, the kind that drives away every vestige of happiness and renders us incapable of fully enjoying any pleasure, can be handled only by discovering a capacity for a different kind of joy. That is the function of pain, to carry us into the inner recesses of our being that wants God. We need to let soul-pain do its work by experiencing it fully.”
In addition, when we are numb, we can end up engaging in behaviors that are risky and/or sinful because we just want to feel alive. We want to feel something.
So, how do we “deal” with pain without going to numbing strategies? To put it simply, we have to be able to appreciate the importance of grieving and sadness as a normal, needed part of life. The problem is that we often believe that sadness and grief are realities to be avoided at all costs.
Henri Nouwen shares:
“Typically we see such hardship as an obstacle to what we think we should be – healthy, good-looking, free of discomfort. We consider suffering as annoying at best, meaningless at worst. We strive to get rid of our pains in whatever way we can. A part of us prefers the illusion that our losses are not real, that they come only as temporary interruptions. We thereby expend much energy in denial. ‘They should not prevent us from holding on to the real thing,’ we say to ourselves.”
Nouwen hints at something which is at the core of the problem: “what we should be.” When we hold expectations for how life should be, we will always run into disappointment and perhaps even shame. Shame is the feeling that there is something wrong with us. If we are grieving and/or sad, we may indeed come to believe that there is something inherently wrong with us.
Brene Brown makes just this point as she suggests that “we’ve lost our capacity to hold pain and discomfort” in our culture. She goes on to say: “There are two affects or emotions that people fear the most. Its shame and grief.” And, it would seem that these two compound one another.
The great reality is that the pathway to pure joy is through the darkness of pain and loss. Because of the deep mystery and complexity of life, we never know exactly why some things happen but we can know that God uses pain to draw us closer to Himself. If we let Him, He can take our pain and redeem it and reshape it. Larry Crabb comments: “Our generation has lost the concept of finding joy in unfulfilled desire. We no longer know what it means to hope. We want what we want now.” The very concept of unfulfilled desired may be anathema in our culture, but it is a wonderful teacher. Half a century ago, C. S. Lewis wrote: “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”
The redemption and transformation of pain that comes when we know how to grieve can be summed up in the word “joy.” Joy is the deep sense that God is present and involved in our lives. When we numb ourselves to pain, we can lose that sense that God is present in our lives. In some ways, this might sound counter-intuitive. However, as we learn to grieve, we are thrust into a world that is larger than self. We learn to let go of our own perspectives and preferences. We learn to hope in God. We learn to be present for others in their pain and loss.
So, how do we stay with pain and engage in grieving in a way that we are not separating ourselves from what God might be doing? How do we learn to experience sadness in a way that is healthy and helpful to ourselves and others? Let me suggest four things:
- Refuse to “numb out.”
Notice the temptation in yourself. What are the strategies you employ when experiencing pain or loss? Spend a few minutes in introspective prayer. (Psalm 139:23-24)
- Rest in God’s presence.
We might want God to say, “I’ll take away all your pain.” But, He says, “I’ll be with you. I’ll sit with you in it.” We might want a magic bulletin for our pain, but there are no magic bullets. There is Presence. There is a God who says, “I’m am WITH you.” Make yourself aware and attentive to God’s presence. Where is God when you are suffering? He is with you. Make the recognition of His presence your focus. (Hebrews 13:5b)
- Realize you are on a journey.
In Psalm 30:5, we are told that “weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” There is hope in the midst of all our pain. We frequently hold our pain like we hold a snapshot, focusing on the seemingly static, unmoving nature of things. Rather, hold your pain by seeing it as a part of movie. Transformation happens when we sit with the pain in hope.
- Relate to others who will sit with you in it.
Frequently, we isolate during pain. Perhaps, it is shame that motivates us. Perhaps, the unwitting comments of others that hurt more than help (e.g., “get over it” or “be brave” or “toughen up”). Surround yourself with trusted friends who are more interested in listening than fixing and/or giving advice.
Be assured: our pain will either be transformed or transmitted. Choosing to grieve and feel sadness can lead to transformation while ignoring our pain and numbing it will invariably lead to transmitting it to others. Henri Nouwen counsels:
“The voice of evil also tries to tempt us to put on an invincible front. Words such as vulnerability, letting go, surrendering, crying, mourning, and grief are not to be found in the devil’s dictionary. Someone once said to me, ‘Never show you weakness, for you will be used; never be vulnerable, for you will get hurt; never depend on others, for you will lose your freedom.’ This might sound very wise, but it does not echo the voice of wisdom. It mimics a world that wants us to respect without question the social boundaries and compulsions that society has defined for us.”