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.