By John Stangle
Intractable pain — debilitating physical pain — seems to have no value. Whatever is necessary to alleviate it is considered justified, as long as it doesn’t cause further pain or destruction. But is there a level of pain that can be accepted, or that even has value for human beings? The answer is yes, but there are many “buts.”
We seem to have evolved into a culture where any pain is seen as unacceptable, and one thing that leads to pain is lack of patience. Here we are talking about the psychological and even physical effects of a delayed golf tee time, or waiting in line at the supermarket, or yields to others at a four-way stop sign. Not accepting some such psychological pain could lead to fights at major sale times or to road rage.
So, we can define pain as having degrees, from slight to extreme. We might also see these extremes for both psychological and spiritual pain. It is a well-known adage in family medicine that “pain is a warning sign.” Sometimes it warns that we have extended our physical activity to unadvised, or even dangerous, levels. Do we really want to get rid of this pain and continue on? This is especially a temptation in the athletic world. Is wiping out the pain worth the risk of future debilitation? The athlete must ask this question, and those working with athletes must be aware of the situation. Likewise, medical doctors must weigh the risks of alleviating patients’ physical pain to the detriment of the natural warning system.
On the other hand, there is another old adage: “no pain, no gain.” While usually applied to athletic training, it is also relevant in the worlds of physical rehabilitation, scholarship, emotional relationships, and many other areas. Here we recognize that some pain is useful and even desirable.
And what about spiritual pain? A person can often feel extreme pain over actions taken that impinge on the spiritual — the meaning of one’s life and love. To believe one has gone against one’s core positions can cause debilitating anguish and self-hatred and depression. While some pain in decision-making can be expected, to reach a state of scrupulosity and frozenness is unhealthy. This is pain that needs to be dealt with spiritually and psychologically. Sometimes guidance and introspection can help the situation. Just as the medical doctor responds, “Some pain is expected, but let me know if it gets worse,” so too can a spiritual mentor affirm the difficulty and complexity of the situation while giving helpful boundary guidance.
Ultimately each individual must deal responsibly with the pains in his or her life, but it is easier said than done. Likewise, those in the helping professions have a mandate to alleviate harmful and unhealthy pain — all the while recognizing that the culture around them may draw that line in a different place.
John Stangle, BCC, is a chaplain advanced (mental health) emeritus in Angel Fire, NM.