Pain can be a school of compassion


One of my classes at the seminary dealt with the problem of pain. How do humans experience pain and suffering in a universe created by a good God? One little aside by my lecturer mentioned that philosophers tie themselves in knots over the issue of pain. How can we describe pain? We can only speak in metaphors, saying what it is like. Yet we have a word for “pain” that is not meaningless. We all have human bodies, brains and nervous systems. But how does one know what someone else’s pain is really like?  

Many people encounter pain in childhood. I recall putting my hand through the wringer of a washing machine. That really hurt. My parents told me about my jumping on a bed, hitting my head, swallowing my tongue, going blue in the face, having a fit, and nearly biting my mother’s finger off as she prised my tongue out of my throat. I have no memory of this. 

I do remember doing a bicycle drag race with my brother on a neighbourhood street, shooting over the handlebars and skidding along the asphalt for several metres, deeply grazing my knees, hands and face. I literally saw stars. The merthiolate at the doctor’s afterwards wasn’t fun either.  

When I was a little older, I managed to get a fish-hook embedded in one of my fingers. My father poured whisky on it and cut it out with a razor blade (we were on holiday). No anaesthetic there. A year or so later, I stood on a broken bottle protruding from the sand at a beach and cut my right foot to the tendons. That required multiple stitches and wrecked that summer. I still have a scar shaped like the numeral three on my right foot. 

Sports resulted in their share of injuries. I had my glasses smashed into one of my eyebrows in one cricket match, with appropriately bloody results. I took six bouncers to the rib cage when opening the batting in another game. Then there was the soccer game in which I smashed my face into an opponent’s hip (a badly timed tackle) and had blood spurt from my nose for what seemed an eternity. Having an opponent kick me flush on the instep in another game – that one hurt for days. 

I remember the searing headache I had as the anaesthetic wore off after I had had a wisdom tooth removed. All I could do was lie face down on my bed and wait for the pain to go away. Then there was the upper back injury I suffered as a result of overdoing things with weights at the gym. That led to shooting pains from the back of my head to my eyebrows. It took the intercession of an osteopath to make that one go away. Tearing several ankle ligaments as I tripped on a gutter wasn’t fun either. But I was amazed at how effective acupuncture was at accelerating my healing.  

My path back to health in most of these episodes was facilitated by the skills, mercy and love of others. (I had to suffer the jolts from an electric fence by myself!). 

What is the point of this catalogue of mishaps and misadventures? Many people would have suffered similar injuries, all relatively minor, and many will have suffered worse, much worse. But the upshot of all my injuries was that, eventually, they all healed and the pain went away. The experiences helped develop in me the cardinal virtue of prudence. They also taught me to have compassion for others in pain.  

I have not spoken about emotional, psychological or spiritual suffering. There isn’t room for that here. But when I look at the crucifix, I can see that Jesus died in agony. His pain did not go away and he suffered unto the end. If my pain can school me in compassion, just imagine the compassion Christ has for us in our pain, even in lockdown.   

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Michael Otto

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  1. Nigel Williamson says

    In the “good old days” the idea of Lent
    went hand in hand with daily mortification- Lenten
    fasting. Mandatory fasting also from liquids and solids
    before mass from midnight the night before was
    a habitual practice.
    That seems to have changed- fasting arrived
    though, recently as an ask through the events
    of Medjugorje, TWICE WEEKLY, not just at certain
    times of the liturgical year.
    Fr Garrigou Lagrange O.P. in his “Three ages of
    the interior life” uses the notion in the
    “purgative way” which precedes (necessarily it
    must be assumed), the “illuminative” way, which
    then precedes the “unitive” way”, as part of the
    individuals journey towards a mystical life and
    for prayer of a certain intensity.
    The “purgative” way is fasting.
    or to put it in simple layman’s terms,
    “no pain no gain”.
    The cross meant something then. The idea
    of the Christocentric dominated over the
    What has changed? Is it all the “fault” of
    Vatican II?
    Or is it a mere “relaxation” that arrived concurrent
    with Television and other motion picture?
    Between Instagram, Twitter, mobile phones, and
    other distractions the Catholic culture is having a
    hard time surviving in a sea of temptations to act
    out life in the direction of innumerable “creature
    comforts”. The very notion of the Sacred is being
    seriously questioned as is the reality of the
    Perhaps among the 40,000,000 plus pilgrims to
    Medjugorje there will be an evolving cultus that
    embraces fasting, and then with it proper habits
    of listening prayer, and being one with the will of God.
    Suffering physically for ones faith always brings joy.
    It is also witness to the timelessness of Christ.
    Suffering spiritually is another kind of suffering,
    and this is part of the life of the ardent Christian
    The gradual return to established norms of spiritual
    growth represents a healthy life in Christ, and also
    the beginnings of a recovery in a church beset by
    scandals. The cross is central. To remove it from the
    central place it occupies is to ascribe another
    proposition to the meaning inherent in scripture,
    and as such to lead the individual to apostasy [Fr. Hans
    Urs von Balthasar].
    Christians MUST witness.
    Selling is not promoting or facilitating truth.
    And propaganda is not witness.
    Catholicism is not the same without its martyrs
    (witness) and its saints.

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