“So, it didn’t help at all?” A friend asked me on the phone after she read Part 1 of 3 Days in Treatment. “At least you got a blog out of it.” And today, as I get this Part 2 ready to post, I’m getting a little testing of my faith–can I accept the lessons of my pain?
I woke up feeling nausea in my chest and in my stomach. After 9 years of bi- or tri-monthly migraines, you would think I would immediately know a migraine was rearing its head. Finally, I figured it out, took my medicine, went back to sleep for an hour. Feeling better, I made the 9:12 train to the city and very slowly made it to the library. I tried to not go too fast, to allow myself to stop and rest a few times on the 20 minute walk. I called my friend Ester, to wish her happy birthday, but also to rest and also because I knew she would pray for me. Still a little breathless, with tightness in my chest and left-side pain from my head down my neck to my shoulder, I’m here now, at my table, in my chair, looking out to trees on two sides.
My overdoing the afternoons after my headache treatment tells me a few things. 1. It reminds me that if I push myself I can do x, y, or z. 2. It reminds me that what my mind wants and what my body needs are often in conflict. Yet we are whole people, because of Christ’s redemption. 3. It teaches me again that God’s grace is abundant, in my ever faltering. That God’s rest is for me, now. Not just for eternity. Now, as I get to the library late, as a healthy-looking person who has to take 3 breaks on my walk from the train. Rest. Now. 4. Living by the spirit means listening to the ways the spirit teaches us—through our humble and frail bodies. That Christ, by becoming human, redeemed the brokenness of our human bodies. That in our suffering—which very often is physical—we become like Christ.
Reading the chapter on Martin Luther King and nonviolence in the Hauerwas book (War and the American Difference), one line stuck out to me. Dr. King learned that unearned suffering could be redemptive. That suffering for Christ, suffering for goodness, suffering to break down evil, is redemptive. I think that’s what chronic pain teaches some of us too. That suffering which has no discernible cause and no sin-related reason doesn’t make sense in the world’s economy, but can be used by God to bring us in closer communion with God’s Son and mold us into the character of God, who loves us so deeply that God allows suffering to be inflicted on His most precious Son. Does my suffering bring me closer to God? I think so. And I must believe so.
Recently, I had a frightening thought. If my daily headache and frequent migraines were the thing that kept me relying on God for daily grace and power made perfect in weakness, then I had to be okay with God not taking it away. If I didn’t have the daily pain, would I falter in my faith? If I didn’t have the daily reminder that thy will, not mine, be done, then I must ask for this thorn to continue. Because I do agree with Paul that Christ’s power is made perfect in my weakness. And again, when Paul says, in the second letter to the Corinthians:
3 May the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ be blessed! He is the compassionate Father and God of all comfort. 4 He’s the one who comforts us in all our trouble so that we can comfort other people who are in every kind of trouble. We offer the same comfort that we ourselves received from God. 5 That is because we receive so much comfort through Christ in the same way that we share so many of Christ’s sufferings. 6 So if we have trouble, it is to bring you comfort and salvation. If we are comforted, it is to bring you comfort from the experience of endurance while you go through the same sufferings that we also suffer. 7 Our hope for you is certain, because we know that as you are partners in suffering, so also you are partners in comfort.
8 Brothers and sisters, we don’t want you to be unaware of the troubles that we went through in Asia. We were weighed down with a load of suffering that was so far beyond our strength that we were afraid we might not survive. 9 It certainly seemed to us as if we had gotten the death penalty. This was so that we would have confidence in God, who raises the dead, instead of ourselves. 10 God rescued us from a terrible death, and he will rescue us. We have set our hope on him that he will rescue us again, 11 since you are helping with your prayer for us. Then many people can thank God on our behalf for the gift that was given to us through the prayers of many people. (Common English Bible)
This passage brings me humility and joyful sadness every time I read it. After graduation from college, I lived with a girl who struggled with profound depression. We weren’t that close, but she was kind to let me live with her a few months while I figured out my living arrangements. She was there for me when I had a migraine that turned into an neck pain that required a trip to the ER and a week of painkillers and rest. One weekend, while I was visiting friends out of town, she almost killed herself by stepping in front of a train.
The above verses mean a little more to me, because the lines were actually true for both of us: “We were weighed down with a load of suffering that was so far beyond our strength that we were afraid we might not survive.” But then the verses turn—and our lives turned as we made ourselves obedient to the example of Scripture: “This was so that we would have confidence in God, who raises the dead, instead of ourselves.” And it gets better! “God rescued us from a terrible death”—my roommate had almost stepped in front of a train a block from our apartment. “And he will rescue us”—my pain isn’t healed but I have a promise that God will rescue us again—again, when the headaches linger for 9 years, again, God will rescue when my friend struggles with another wave of depression.
What more can I say? Do I wish that my headaches end? Yes. Do I desire, more than the ending of my headaches, to be the follower of Christ that He calls me to be? Yes, I say, even as I blink away a few tears. (Please don’t cry, dear Mother, as you read this.)
My dad left me a lovely voice message Saturday night. He said, “Hi Em, it’s Dad. … I was just calling to say I am very excited that the treatment seems to be helping you. We’re thanking God for that and for the doctor for suggesting it. So I hope it continues to really, really help you and you start to feel like your old self again. …”
After I listened to it, I wouldn’t look at Charles and just sat on the floor, still. I finally looked up. I told Charles what the message said. But I’m not feeling any better, I said. And I don’t want to disappoint my parents that it probably didn’t work. When my mom asked how I was doing on Sunday, I managed to avoid answering the question. I called my nurse practioner to see if I might feel some delayed improvement or if I would already know that it had helped. She said that I would know already that it helped. If you don’t feel any better—she paused—then it didn’t work. I was afraid of that, afraid that I would be disappointing my parents with this information, that I would feel the disappoint of a dream deferred.
And then another part of the message from my father stopped me short, left me quiet and sad. The hope that I would “start to feel like your old self again.”
What “old self”? My 19-year-old self? For all that girl’s lack of pain, I don’t want that self back. I don’t want the more selfish, less compassionate, more controlling character back. I do want back her ability to stay up until midnight, reading for hours without even getting up to stretch, editing or writing for hours and not notice my body at all. I would like that body that wasn’t incredibly strong, but that didn’t require much care or consideration.
But if I had to swap my character changes for my body changes, I wouldn’t do it. As I’m about to cry again (like Jenn Aycock, I should probably give up mascara!), I can be thankful. I recently spent some time with a few of my college roommates. One of them and I had a pretty major falling out our last year of college and we were both entrenched in our “correct” positions. I am pretty sure I was the less gracious, but thankfully, I can’t really remember what it was all about. But I saw her recently and had such a wonderful time. I have matured considerably. I like this character better. I like the me that can be friends again with my roommate. Another roommate, Ester, who prayed for me today—the one that facilitated reconciliation between me and the other woman and a person of great spiritual insight and character—said that she’s really seen spiritual growth in me, especially in the 6 years since we graduated college.
Perhaps it’s just time’s graceful maturing. But I think a large part is my pain. Dr. Paul Brand, in his famous book, The Gift of Pain, explains that pain lets us know something is wrong. Sometimes we don’t know what that something is, but we can, with God’s grace, still allow ourselves to learn from it. And because I am reminded daily, sometimes hourly, of my frailty and need for grace to not curse and yell and be a nasty person, I don’t forget God’s provision.
Without a doubt, I know that no matter what happens with my chronic pain, God will supply me with enough grace. God’s faithfulness is enough, every morning, when I struggle to rise. God’s grace and comfort—for individuals, for the suffering of the world—will flow from me, because I have first received grace and comfort. And that is good news indeed.