Intellectualizing Our Pain

intellectualization

We live in a world full of pain.  I work with people in pain.  As a Pastor, I deal with a variety of people’s spiritual and emotional pain – every family, without exception, has some hidden underlying pain that no one sees by looking in from the outside.  There is dark secret pain which comes from a staggering variety of sources.  There is also the more obvious physical pain.  Just the other day, I responded to a call from a social worker to visit an incorrigible woman who usually calms down when the Chaplain is around.  The woman was in pain, and the kind that isn’t going away any time soon, if ever.  Of course, she was incorrigible.  I would be, too.

Our responses to pain are as varied as we are as individual people.  The kind of reaction to pain I want to highlight is one that I am personally most familiar with: intellectualization.  That is, coping with pain by cutting it off from the emotions and putting it squarely in the arena of the rational analytical mind.  If we can split off the painful feelings (so the shadow-self says) and lay them aside, then we can avoid the hurt.

Just so you know, I just described an unhealthy way to deal with troubles.  Bifurcation of our feelings and setting them aside, like using a cleaver to separate bone from meat, doesn’t actually deal with the agony – it simply removes it so as to not have to feel any terrible effects.  In other words:

Intellectualizing a problem is a defense mechanism ingeniously designed mostly in the subconscious to block out pain, ignore emotional stress, suppress spiritual trauma, and stuff down a host of ailments residing in our bodies and our souls.

Using the intellect as a substitute for emotional work goes something like this:  If I can just distance myself from anxiety, worry, and unpleasant feelings associated with a particular condition, then I can remove the pain.  If I can get away from the pain, then all we become well.  I will hide my feelings so they can’t come out to play and wreak havoc in my personal protected emotional playground.  For example, when my grandson was diagnosed with epilepsy, I became an expert on it… and medical marijuana… and treatment options… and various diagnoses and prognoses… and on and on and on, ad infintium, ad nauseum.  Intellectualizing his condition put off the hard emotional work of facing my own painful feelings.

There is not a thing wrong with educating yourself and learning all you can about a situation or problem.  Yet:

When the reading, discovery, and exploration of a particular problem, disease, or issue becomes a way to avoid feeling the pain, anger, and onslaught of other emotions that are evoked because of the situation, then it is high time to set aside the books and the interactions on the cerebral level long enough to engage some very needed emotional work.

For me, thinking about the situation with my grandson (or my wife, or a jillion other people, events, and problems in my life!) can far too easily become an exercise in rational and clinical analysis.  Talking about it only on the level of cold and detached ways of logic and reason keeps the unwanted emotional pain associated with it at bay.  Bottom line: I am afraid to feel, because if I feel all the emotions wrapped-up in a little boy who doesn’t deserve all the challenges and pain of epilepsy, I’d be completely undone (and we can’t have that, now, can we!?).

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So, I soldier on, encouraging the emotions of others, all the while ignoring my own inner crap.  You might be wondering at this point, “So, what, then, are we supposed to do??”

Glad you asked.  The more important question is: “So, what, then, are you supposed to feel??”  When God created us in his image, He made us in His emotional likeness.  God feels all kinds of emotions, and He feels them all deeply.  I think we sometimes forget that.

Let me remind you of an instance of divine emotion in a time of terrible trouble.  The people God formed to be like Him, decided to go their own way.  As a result, the world became horribly violent, with people embracing evil to the point “that every idea their minds thought up was always completely evil.”  God’s response was first and foremost, an emotional response: “The LORD regretted making human beings on the earth, and he was heartbroken” (Genesis 6:5-6).

God only made a cerebral and rational plan to deal with humanity after He felt deeply about the situation.  This makes me wonder:

How much more must we ourselves get in touch with all those unwanted emotions, before we decide to plod ahead in a rational course of action?

Will we choose to allow ourselves to feel deeply about what the heck is going on?

Will we even go there?

I want you to grab hold of this thought and not let go:

We cannot go any further with a rational course of action than we have first been willing to go just as far emotionally with identifying and feeling all the stuff that’s inside us.

Jesus, the perfect embodiment of God, felt an array of emotions:  from sheer astonishment over someone’s sincere faith, to intense grief over the people not getting what he was doing; from wondering joy while telling poignant parables, to fierce anger concerning his Father’s house being used irreverently; and, from playful banter with his disciples, to deep sorrow over the stubborn lack of faith in so many.  Our Lord expressed his feelings as the ideal will of God in all kinds of situations.  In short, Jesus didn’t set aside emotions; didn’t circumvent them; and, didn’t call them bad.  Christ freely engaged his emotions as both man and God.  Feelings were not just part of the human side of him; it was actually much more the divine side.

I understand that it gets dicey with emotions.  Every person on planet earth is a bundle of contradictions, and, so, emotions get expressed in both helpful ways as well as in damaging ways.  We all have been hurt, and we’ve all hurt others.  Welcome to life in this world.  Which means it is even more important for us to acknowledge and deal with all of our emotions, whether we ascribe to them “good” or “bad” labels.

Every feeling is there for a reason, tapping you on the shoulder trying to get your attention.  To heap all those feelings together in a mental garbage dump so that you can get on to the business of living your life without pain is only going to exacerbate your trouble in the long run.

“How is your heart doing today?” and “Tell me about how that feels” are just as much viable and pertinent questions for health as a medical doctor asking you about your physical symptoms.  Keeping things solely in the physical/mental realm and diminishing the soul with its vast feeling universe might enable you to get through today, but it isn’t going to help you tomorrow.  The emotional pain will still be there, and unhealthy ways of coping with it will eventually catch up to you.

Instead, three practices can enable you to identify and express your emotions in a manner that is healthy, helpful, and downright holistic.  They are:

  1. Talking on the feeling level with a trusted friend, minister, or counselor;
  2. Writing in a journal all the details of how you are doing and feeling. In other words, create space to express what’s going on.  No one else has to see it, unless you want them to.  I personally would encourage you to write in your journal, and then simply read a portion of it to your trusted friend and talk about it.
  3. Praying to a big God with all your big emotions. You can say things to God that you would never say to another person, and that’s okay.  He’s big enough to handle all your feelings, your emotionally-charged questions, your drama, and any ostentatious displays of feeling.  God isn’t going anywhere; He is always there to listen and nothing will surprise Him, annoy Him, or befuddle Him.  The Lord operates on the currency of grace in his kingdom, so this ought to free you and me to be with Him in ways that are life-giving.

None of these practices operate solely in the world of ideas and thoughts.  Rather, they are designed to integrate the fragmented soul with the shattered mind so that true emotional wholeness, spiritual wellness, and just plain life enrichment can happen in new and healthy ways.

You are on a journey, and not a guilt trip.  Take advantage of the God who is available, and the humungous world of emotions he has provided you with.  Face each one squarely with His Spirit as your guide and His people as your support, and you will discover a kind of healing from pain that you never knew could exist.

Allowing Your Pain to Make a Difference

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There’s a reason I do what I do, and am what I am.  Through nearly 33 years of marriage my wife and I have been through a lot – more than I could ever share with you.  One of our big challenges came from the year 2014.  In the space of nine months, Mary had three spine surgeries.  I went from not only having the role of husband, but that of caregiver, as well.  It took months of daily physical and occupational therapy, not to mention the endless doctor visits, for my wife to learn to walk again and do simple tasks that most of us take for granted.

The good news is that Mary is upright and walking.  She can mostly get around and do things on her own.  The bad news is that she lives with chronic pain every single day.  Some days aren’t too bad, and Mary can accomplish a fair amount of what she wants to do.  But there are other days when she can’t get out of bed; days when taking a shower and getting dressed is all she can get done; and, days when the pain becomes so problematic that discouragement and depression sandwiches her like two evil slices of bread.

Yet, even on the worst of days Mary is an amazing wife.  She is tough and resilient, as well as compassionate and caring.  I’ve learned most of what I know about caring ministry from her.  I don’t talk a lot about her on this website.  Yet, Mary is behind each word I craft and every phrase I smith.  She is always on my mind and in my heart.  Mary has taught me how to care through the example of her own life, and given me the opportunity to show how much I care for her.

Mary maintains a Facebook page about her journey with pain called “Joy in the Mourning.”  Because she lives with chronic pain, her posts come neither regularly nor easily.  It is a labor of love, some days being a whole lot more labor than love.  Recently, Mary was able to return to a job.  By no means able to hold a full-time job, she has found meaningful work doing what she does best: caring for people as a companion to folks with dementia.

The following is her most recent post.  I hope you are encouraged in your own journey of faith.  Whether you face chronic physical or emotional pain, care for someone who does, or just want to live-out your faith in ways that make sense, I trust you find some joy in your life through whatever circumstances you may face today:

Friends, I’ve got great news!  I have completed the first 90 days at my job!  It’s been a long time since I have been able to say that.  I’m sore today from working. Usually, I say that I hurt today due to getting dressed or showering, walking the dog, or getting out of bed.  It has taken over 3 years, post-surgeries, to be able commit to a regular schedule of working.  

In my healing journey, I had to commit /submit myself to physical therapy, yoga stretching, strength training, biofeedback, acupuncture, massage therapy, weekly counseling with a pain psychologist, daily prayer, journaling, meditation, and even sought out healing through the laying on of hands from godly healers, as well as nutrition, essential oils and music therapy.  All very helpful, but…

I have to admit a foundational piece to getting to where I am today: I mourned. 

I gave myself permission to mourn my loss.  I admitted my anger… no, I wrestled with my anger is a better phrase; and, I embraced my sadness, and let myself feel the loneliness of disability. I asked the hard questions: WHY!? How long? I cried… a lot. In my darkest times a little spark of light invaded my space.  A gentle and soft comfort hugged my heart. A warm sprinkle of hope powdered my soul.  I began to discover a new kind of joy.

No matter what your specific suffering is, I believe that mourning your loss, and allowing yourself to walk through the valley of the shadow will lead you to a path where you can experience comfort, hope and even joy.  For me, this part of the journey has been life-giving. Christ understands suffering. He will walk with us through this experience.  

I never told you what I’m doing now. I am a companion for those who suffer – mostly Alzheimer’s patients, and those who are suffering life-altering afflictions.  I’m working 2-6 hours each day, sharing some of the comfort I received, and being real and open while allowing my pain to make a difference.  May you be blessed, my friends.

Feeling Pain

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“There was nothing attractive about him,
nothing to cause us to take a second look.
He was looked down on and passed over,
a man who suffered, who knew pain firsthand.
One look at him and people turned away.
We looked down on him, thought he was scum.
But the fact is, it was our pains he carried—
our disfigurements, all the things wrong with us.
We thought he brought it on himself,
that God was punishing him for his own failures.
But it was our sins that did that to him,
that ripped and tore and crushed him—our sins!
He took the punishment, and that made us whole.
Through his bruises we get healed.” (Isaiah 53:2-5, The Message)

I don’t like pain.  I’m not at all into the feeling of discomfort.  I am told by a few lady friends who have had kidney stones that they are as painful as childbirth, if not worse.  I’ll take their word for it.  I completely believe them because I have had a few stones in my life.  The last time I had one, I vehemently demanded and commanded the emergency staff at the hospital to help me now, and to get me the strongest pain relieving drugs known to humanity now.  I thought I was giving birth to a boulder, and I did not just want pain relief; I needed it.  The pain was acute, and there was no way to let my body relax enough to pass a stone without some significant medicinal intervention.

We often use the word “pain” as if it is a one-size-fits-all for a range of unpleasant experiences.  But the reality is that there is a world of difference between physical pain and emotional pain.  As painful as those kidney stones were, nothing compares to feeling deep emotional pain.  It hurts more than a hundred stones.  It’s a different kind of pain, requiring a different kind of remedy.

When we have physical pain, it is both good and right to work on alleviating the pain through the wonderful drug therapies which exist.  More than once I thanked God for morphine.  But emotional pain is unlike any other kind of hurt.  Whereas immediate pain relief is often necessary to the body in order for it to heal, such is not the case with the soul.  Emotional pain, the kind where our spirits are broken and our souls are damaged, the kind where dreams are shattered and hope drains from the spirit, will not simply go away or ever be alleviated apart from actually feeling it in all of its ugly hurt.

Trying to mask, cover-up, or numb emotional and spiritual pain will not do.  Working harder or faster; imbibing a few strong adult beverages; smoking; overeating; a shopping spree; or pornography are not paths to properly handling the kind of pain that is deep down in the soul.  Binging on sports or Netflix might temporarily distract a person from emotional pain, but it doesn’t make it go away.  In fact, it only exacerbates the future pain.  Try and put a lid on emotional pain and it will only explode its contents on others who don’t deserve the unhealthy barrage of words and behaviors.

Emotional pain must not be ignored, circumvented, or stuffed.  It needs to be faced squarely and deeply felt.  One must resolutely walk into it and through it because it is the only way to effectively deal with it.  Unlike the human body, which is designed to heal itself when given the chance through meds and rest, the soul cannot heal unless it recognizes its hurts, names them, and feels them.  To try and work around it, believe we can simply buck-up and get over it, or wrongheadedly think it only belongs in the past, will not do.

Jesus entered into our pain.  He felt terrible physical pain as well as agonizing emotional pain.  The pain of the entire world was focused on him.  Christ intimately knows our pain first hand.  The path to healing goes through the cross – not avoiding it or going around it, but facing it in all of its foulness, degradation, and pain.

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When my emotional pain seems to go right down into the marrow of my bones to the point where my insides hurt, popping some pills will not help.  I don’t need my pain masked; I need it transformed.  I need to crucify my disappointments, my missed expectations, and my desire for revenge.  I need to nail my perfectionism, my puny attempts at control, and my avoidance of forgiveness to the cross.  And I need to see that by the wounds of Jesus Christ I am healed.  Only through entering into Christ’s pain, and allowing him to enter mine, will I ever experience the long sought healing deep in my soul so that my insides are made right once again.

The emotional kidney stones of my soul are transformed by the rock of my salvation, Jesus Christ.  The great servant of Jesus, the Apostle Paul, said that he has been crucified with Christ and he now no longer lives, but Christ lives within him (Galatians 2:20).  The cross was not simply an historical event occurring two millennia ago; the crucifixion is a past action with the continuing results of genuine deliverance and real healing.  Pain is a gift, and one that must be opened and acknowledged, seen and felt, and transformed.

Hebrews 12:1-3

            “Capital punishment” is simply a softened way to say “state-sponsored killing.”  It is a bit like always using the word “discomfort” instead of “pain.”  Pain is still pain, and some pain just hurts like hell.  Jesus knows all of this first-hand.  He experienced capital punishment – not only state-sponsored killing but state-sponsored torture, humiliation, and intentional shaming.  What Jesus faced was no humane lethal injection; it was full of prolonged agony, blood, nakedness, and public humiliation.  It was awful.  It was the ultimate act of shame.  The cross was terribly painful in every sense of the word; it was filled with physical pain, emotional hurt, mental anguish, and even the spiritual weight of separation from the Father, and the worst pain of all:  carrying the sins of the entire world, past, present, and future.
 
            This is a staggering thought, that Jesus would endure such incredible torture.  So, it is even more astounding that the author of Hebrews would describe this event from Christ’s perspective as “the joy set before him.”  Huh!?  Such sorrow, such agony described from the vantage of Jesus as joy.  Our Lord was no masochist.  He willingly persevered under such strain and pain, endured the worst that hell could throw at him, and faced the ignominy of the cross all because of love.
 
            Jesus Christ loved us so much that he went through the horror of it all with confidence knowing that his sacrifice would mean the redemption of humanity.  With each lash of the whip, with every curse uttered against him, and with all the cruel force of sinful people Jesus had a settled conviction that he would endure so that we could be saved from sin’s power.  Now that is love!
 
            Thus, whenever we despair over some slight of another, become down because of a little opposition, or wonder if we can make it another day under the stress, we must put our lives in perspective.  We are saved, redeemed, forgiven, and loved infinitely by the God who gave himself for us.  Consider him who endured such hostility so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.
 

 

            Loving Lord Jesus, you suffered in a way that I can barely comprehend.  And you do it all for me.  Oh, Lord, forgive me for all those times of being ungrateful and discouraged over my circumstances.  Lead me to the cross, and let me bow in worship before you.  Amen.