“I’ve had it better than some, and I know that I shouldn’t complain. Though my grandfather told me once that all pain hurts the same.” – Langhorne Slim, Back to the Wild
Friday afternoon, all of Liberty University’s Enrollment Management staff headed to Peaks View Park for an office picnic. I sat for the first few hours in the dull but stifling sun next to the wonderful Processing ladies, who’d picked the perfect spot to sit–far enough from as much noise as possible, but still close enough to the food. Timi, some of the other ladies from the SAO, Josiah, and a few Admissions Counselors threw Bocci Balls across the grass. A large and incorrigible boxer drooled down my sleeve and romped about with Jason as Carolyn pulled persistently on the dog’s leash. A tree provided a resting place for my aching back as I pulled Kierkegaard from my purse for some quality time with my favorite Danish philosopher.
But I was in nothing close to a good mood–the week (or, indeed, the whole month) had left me weary, the morning had been hectic and discouraging, and my physical pains succumbed to the coaxings of these pressures and waxed ever more oppressive as I sat on the lawn. Soon the cheerful puppy’s coat left my eyes watery and my nose sniffly with those random animal allergies I occasionally contract. The ugliness of fences and electrical poles stretched out before me on the noisy fields where the men played baseball or football. I was struck by the gaping disparity between recreation and rest, and my mind refused to focus on my reading. I became, well, quite petulant.
Now and then I’d glance at my phone and sigh … “two more hours! ugh” … and eventually, as 5:00 drew tantalizingly near, I mustered up the energy to take a walk, if only because my stiff, complaining limbs could sit no longer. Now, perhaps I walked in areas of the park that are blessed with lesser beauties, but I was not at all impressed–the walk reinforced my petulance rather than curing it, as I passed by a ravaged stream strewn with empty bottles and rusted tires, and as I observed again and again stunted plant life growing timidly among utilitarian sidewalks and structures built for man’s enjoyment. Such things afforded me no pleasure, and I closed my eyes momentarily to imagine what that place might have been.
After another weary night, I awoke Saturday morning to the realization that I was, in fact, quite ill. Finally! A perfect excuse to take it easy, to shut out the world, to sleep away the weekend, and to watch TV when awake! Mindless, Stressless, Purposeless relaxation. My childish petulance jumped at the opportunity to indulge in this weakness, but reality soon reminded me that viral infections are by no means relaxing, and lying in bed, alone in my house for three days straight, is by no means fun.
I had been thinking about pain throughout the week–about how it draws our attention from everything around us and focuses it quite firmly on ourselves. And sickness and isolation worked together to drive these thoughts home. When I am deeply in pain, that pain is all I’d like to think about–I don’t have energy to focus on others, I can’t think beyond this headache, I … I … I … you get the idea. We like to have excuses for our selfishness, and we find a certain pride in our weaknesses as well. I mean, no one else experiences the kind of pain I feel. No one else understands what I’m going through. No one else is capable of helping me. And we slip into our comfortable discomfort and revel in our petulant pains. At least, that’s what I do.
One of the most beautiful truths in life, however, is that God redeems our pain. This very pain that we experience, the very selfishness it drives us to, He can turn outwards and can transform into something that edifies others and glorifies Himself. I believe that truth is at the very heart of community. In a relationship with another human being, we are faced with someone else whose pains are as deep as our own, or even deeper. We are called to humility before the recognition of the universality of pain and brokenness (I’m not the only one, after all) and the overwhelming blessedness with which we’ve been graciously gifted in life. We are compelled not just to compassion, not just to commiseration, but even towards redemption as we pray for one another, encourage one another, and plead together for the help of the One who is Strength in our weakness and Healing for our pain.
In such community, there is hope. Thinking back on that Friday at Peaks View Park, even my mediocre picnic experience was redeemed–that rape of nature (if you will), that ugliness and lacking that was whispered about in the limbs of the trees and gurgled throughout the swirls of muddied water around those rusty tires in the stream–it’s evidence of the brokenness, pain, and tension that exist in our fallen world. And yet, the way the sunshine fell among the fluttering leaves on that branch, and the way that little newt slithered happily about in the eddies on the rocks … the way a squirrel ran surreptitiously up a tree after spotting me, and the way the breeze lifted my sullen spirits despite their petulant will … these are the things that reassure me that even in pain there is beauty, and even in brokenness there is blessedness. For we have a Creator whose will is just, whose ways are higher and greater than ours, and yet whose love is more astoundingly steadfast, more quietly potent, and more gloriously redemptive than anything we could hope to express.