The Abundant Life of a Broken Heart 3: On Pain

I wanted to write about my experience of anxiety in a way that rejects the binary narrative of 'either' being, for example, happy 'or' being sad. That reflects the reality of my life which has life and death all mixed up and sometimes, often, feels like the experience of living is brighter and more real, for being in the midst of a sense of dying.
I have also wanted to write with the honesty that this is not something which is 'fixed' or, to be honest needs fixing. That in the particularity of my own personhood, this is how my brain works. Sometimes the anxiety is more intense or less intense, but either way it gives me certain lenses through which I perceive the world, myself and others. And, perhaps difficult to understand, I am thankful for these lenses.

All this to explain that instead of writing about Joy which was my intention this week, I'm writing on Pain. Because the last couple of weeks have felt painful in this regard, and I want to be truthful about what that is like. And no better time for that, than when you're in it.

These moments tend to come for me when I've had a period of chronic anxiety, often circumstances catalyse this, and I feel gently nervous over a long period of time. It's not always unpleasant, a little like being excited, butterflies ever present in your stomach. But there can come a moment of crisis, where either this is alleviated, or intensifies. For me the last couple of weeks have felt like an intensification. The sense of 'threat' descends. The almost pleasant butterfly sensation tightens and becomes nausea, the desire to hibernate is Very Strong.
I have some idea why this has happened right now, I think the best explanation is 'shit happens'. Nevertheless the point is what do I do with this pain? How do I make sense of it and myself?

It is so easy to want it away and a good proportion of me, the perfectionist control freak part, is really quite pissed off. I really really hate being vulnerable. I especially hate it when it seems to have taken charge. If I am to be vulnerable, I want to offer this to you in manageable bite sized pieces, in an order that is chosen by me and of which I am in control. Instead of what feels like a churning frothing whirlpool of vomit that will erupt without warning and make a mess.
So even if I wanted to (and I mostly do), it is impossible for me to control these emotions. The only thing is to deal with the vomit. In terms of the Christian faith I walk, it's the reality of sitting with the suffering. Of touching the leper. The leper that is me, needs to be embraced, as a leper, before any healing and restoration can begin. I need to embrace the parts of me that I struggle with, the needy wounded, suffering parts.

Sitting with pain and refraining from taking on the role of Job's comforters towards myself. Allowing the pain to be noticed, to exist and for that to be okay - not that it feels okay necessarily, but that it's okay that it's not okay.

Now, I suppose there is a question about 'wallowing'. Sitting with pain in such a way that is unhealthy. Or perhaps that's just my question? (cross reference Perfectionist Control Freak) I guess my approach to this is that there is a fine line between a healthy embrace of one's woundedness and becoming consumed, but this line has to be walked, there is only this path.

What does sitting with pain look like? It looks like silent prayer - no busy words, no platitudes, no petitions, just 'here I am'. It looks like pause and paying attention - not rushing through the day, but taking the time to recognise what's going on in your head and heart, naming the particular pain whether it's anxiety, fear, shame, anger, notice it and mention it to yourself and God. It looks like being incredibly kind to yourself, parenting and pastoring yourself well. It looks like inviting people to help you, not to fix you, but to know your vulnerability. Do Not Hibernate - this is my strongest temptation, it is a way of controlling the pain but it does not engage with it, it hopes it will pass without having to think about it.
It is euthanasia.
It will, as all things, pass. But pain teaches us. It teaches me about the kindness of God and that wrath and anger is in my own heart. It teaches me that God is good and I'm reminded that he touches the leper, the bleeding woman, the sinners, so I am not untouchable.

Soon the Threat Level will decrease, and I pray that I do not forget.


Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy.

                                                                                      Ps 86.1

The go to place in the bible for pain must surely be the Psalms of Lament. And Psalm 86 captures for me such a lot of what it means to pay attention to and sit with your pain. There is no running away from what is going on in the emotions.
And verse one particularly draws me, because it is honest about being needy. One of the things I find most difficult is the reality of my own need. I don't want to be needy, I don't want to be perceived as needy and I don't want to accidently leak my need all over you because I want to be self sufficient.

The difficulty here is not in being helped and supported by other people but when we think another person can fill the abyss of our need. This is a sign that we are not okay with our own neediness. We want someone to fix it, knowing we can't do it ourselves.
The psalm orientates me to God, to the belovedness that I have in God, from where all need is satisfied. In the words of the psalm I am 'allowed' to be needy, but I am not in need of the absence of my need, I am in need in the presence of love, grace and mercy. Wholeness is not in the taking away of the pain, but in the abundance of God.

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