One of the immutable facts of the universe is that you can never experience someone else’s pain. You can hear about it; you can empathize; you can evaluate it perhaps, but you can’t actually feel it. The reason for this is that pain isn’t simply a physical thing. It’s felt in the brain and the soul.
At the same time.
And that should mean something.
What I’m about to describe is in no way designed to seek your sympathy. Or even your understanding. It’s simply a description with some comments which I hope you’ll find interesting and maybe even thought-provoking.
I don’t know what your pain threshold is; mine’s not great. Perhaps that’s why the last four days of my life have been the worst of my entire life. I’ve thought a lot about writing that. I didn’t want it to be an exaggeration. Will I be exaggerating, I wondered, as I pondered the idea of recounting my experience on my blog? Er . . . well, as it happens, no, I’m not exaggerating.
What happened to you, Richard? Were you captured by natives and put in a pot to boil? Were you attacked by soldier ants and bitten to within an inch of your life? Boils? Locusts? Actually none of the above.
Gastroenteritis. At least, I think it was. Picked it up from my son after he came back from camp with it. He vomited through the night, slept the following day and night, then got up and was fine. Oh the wonder and strength of a youthful immune system.
So, here goes. Sunday afternoon, I’m watching the Wimbledon Final. King Fed (as he’s known in my home) vs. Djokovic. Enjoying the game but feel unwell and can’t see the match out. I’m out from 3pm to 7pm. Up briefly, then sleep through the night. From Monday afternoon to Thursday afternoon, all I can say is that I was in hell for the next three days.
I thought about that phrase a lot: I’m living in hell.
First, the previous conditions which exacerbated the situation: chronic back pain and a condition I simply call Fatigue. No, the doctors haven’t managed to figure it out.
So, generally when you’re unwell, you lie there feeling grotty. Head hurts, you cough, that kind of thing. This was on a completely different level. The stomach cramp was so bad, I simply couldn’t get comfortable. Due to the back pain, I couldn’t find a position in which to relax. Every few minutes – sometimes more – I managed to flush literally gallons of water through my system. Did you notice my avoidance of the D word there? Oops. Just using the first letter probably brought the word to mind. Sorry. At times, I had chills and after a while, I was so tired, I thought, ‘I’m going to need to go to hospital to get a sedative, because I’m exhausted but I can’t sleep. My body won’t allow me to.’ For those who understand the 1-10 pain measurement system, I would say I lived at a 5-6 constantly.
I discovered a few things down in that dark place inhabited by people who suffer greatly. (And I confess right now that my suffering doesn’t even begin to compare with many millions on this planet who experience far worse than me.) First, when you’re in this kind of pain, you start to lose control of your mind. You can’t control what you think about because the pain addles your brain. I found I couldn’t concentrate on the radio, because it gave me a headache. I couldn’t watch TV for the same reason. I could only lie there adjusting my position every few seconds – on average, around every 20 seconds or so – desperate to find one which my body would allow me to stay in for longer.
Did I pray? Well, of course I did. But I found that the pain wouldn’t allow me to concentrate for very long. I did pray for healing frequently. And I recited the 23rd Psalm. But as I lay there, I wanted the answer to a deeper question than simply, ‘will God deliver me from this hellish place?’ I wanted to know if severe pain would give me a window into some kind of spiritual nirvana, some deeper experience of God, some greater insight perhaps, a sense of the divine presence felt especially deeply. I really wish I could tell you that great suffering brings a soul closer to God.
Maybe for some it does.
But not for me. At least not on this occasion.
However, I was reminded of something which I think about a lot. It’s the fact that human beings always, always seek to invest suffering with meaning. Pain forces the human being to seek some kind of higher purpose behind the immediate suffering which s/he is going through. The only thing worse than suffering itself is the thought that it has no meaning, that it just . . . is . . . and there is no particular purpose or value to it. It is the atheists whom we should pity. However, when your stomach feels as though it has churned up your entire intestines and will spit them out with your next bowel movement, I can assure you that you are in no place to think deep thoughts about the significance of your suffering. The only consolation I had was the thought that God exists. He loves me. His own suffering in Christ means that he knows mine intimately. Apparently, he is not taking my pain away – even though I have pleaded – but he has given me life and that is a gift of inestimable value. I can thank him for his goodness and if I do that, I will never go wrong. Ever.
As I recover this evening – I write this on Friday evening, a day later – I pray that I will never diminish a person’s suffering. Ever. I don’t think I’ll ever see people in hospital in the same way ever again. I know, I know. It sounds melodramatic and of course, it is. But on a certain level, it’s true. Severe suffering comes with an invitation, bizarre as that might sound. It comes with a note saying ‘My world suffers greatly. Please care for it. In my name.’
I believe there is always something to learn, even if what you learn is something you thought you already knew.
On this occasion, my suffering came with a direct benefit which was rather unexpected.
I lost 12lbs! Twelve pounds! In four days.
But I wouldn’t wish my experience on anyone. Ever.
© Richard Collins 2014
Next time: Power 2.
Thanks for reading.