Pain without anaesthetic

Let me be clear – this blog is not about physical pain.

(Physical pain is debilitating, and using pain relief is highly advisable.)

The title of this blog refers to the need to find ways of living with emotional/spiritual pain.

Occasionally, anaesthetising such pain is helpful. However, when it results in enduring numbness, something has gone wrong.

Humans have a remarkable ability to adapt to situations of oppression, loss, and pain. Such adaptation is a survival mechanism.

However, our human/ spiritual vocation is to do more than survive; it is to thrive.

And to thrive is to feel.

I have been re-reading a book by the Hebrew Scripture scholar, Walter Brueggemann, entitled The Prophetic Imagination. It underlines that an important role of prophets was enabling people to move beyond numbness to experience pain and grief.

They did so through symbolic words and actions. For example, we hear a plaintive cry in a lament from Jeremiah, ‘Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician?’ (Jer. 8:22)

Jeremiah brought pain to the surface. Prophets bring to awareness what others wish would remain hidden and buried.

I recall a pastoral visit to a man who had undergone heart surgery.

Over the years, I have realised that heart surgery often stirs up deep feelings, so I asked him about it. Before he could reply, his wife stepped in, ‘Oh no! He hasn’t experienced anything like that.’

Her intervention silenced her husband, preventing him from discovering a new level of awareness.

The invitation to bring pain to the surface is often not welcomed.

Religious people sometimes fall into a similar trap, believing that their task is to assure others that everything will be all right.

Rarely can we know that everything will be all right, and such optimism denies others an opportunity to feel what is happening.

These dynamics are often played out at a personal or family level. We should not forget, however, that they operate on a social and cultural level.

Brueggemann notes that it is in the interests of empires to keep citizens in a state of numbness. They achieve this by deploying myths and stories to assure us that numbness is normal.

(The alleged need for border protection comes to mind. The fear it engenders numbs us to the pain of the refugees living on Nauru. It’s a frighteningly effective strategy.)

When we feel emotional pain, it triggers deeper parts of our psyche. We cast forward, at least in our imaginations, to it ending.

Empires detest endings, even imagined, because they cause people to see life differently, and to contemplate that the empire could fall.

The Exodus, which humiliated the empire of Pharaoh, began when God felt the pain of the Hebrew slaves, ‘the groaning of the Hebrew slaves rose up to God, and God took notice of them.’ (Exodus 2:23-25).

Feeling pain initiates a new beginning, in which oppressed peoples become actors in their own stories, forever circumventing the response, ‘But what can you do?’