Recently I received some news which was particularly unpleasant. My emotional response over the next week ranged from defensiveness, to acceptance, to seeing my part, to mild depression, not in that particular order.
One of the lessons in life I have learned over the last few years (I’m now 40. You would think I wouldn’t have taken this long!) is that of not running from pain when life doesn’t treat me as I want it to. We live in an analgesic society. We have pills for almost everything and, as Stephen Ilardi says in his new book The Depression Cure, the rate of anti-depressant medication in America (translate that to most other western societies) has skyrocketed but the rate of depression has not reduced. It has in fact increased tenfold since the Second World War.
The culture we live in is a feel-good culture where pain is to be eliminated at all costs. As a result, our pain threshold lessens and we become less resilient people. The offset of this is that we become less able to sit with others in their pain. Rob Bell makes the profound point that your ability to sit and listen to someone else’s pain is directly proportional to how well you have dealt with your own pain.
The results of our addiction to pleasure and to pain minimisation is that our society ultimately fragments. We become more distant from each other and more unable to empathise with other in our times of sorrow. In my culture in Australia, many people still live by the adage that “she’ll be right mate” and “just have another beer”. And it’s generally us men who display this very unmanly attitude. Contrast that to the attitude and response of Jesus at the death of his good friend Lazarus. In our sporting culture, when a team comes frmo behind to win, we sometimes say it was the greatest comeback since Lazarus. But we have no idea who Lazarus was and what the circumstances behind his amazing comeback were. The shortest verse in the Bible, which comes from this story, is also perhaps the most human and at the same time the most divine – “Jesus wept”.
Jesus demonstrated gutsy, manly care for his mate Lazarus when he found out that he had died. He was unafraid to show his emotions and to sit with his pain. He didn’t run from it, he didn’t try to medicate it. He sat with it and expressed it, and did so for all to see. The responses he got were mixed, but the people’s response when he did something about the situation was nothing short of amazement.
I well recall some years ago when I was going through a very acute personal trauma that, one afternoon, it just felt like I had this huge hole in my chest. I called a friend and shared my feelings with him. I have never forgotten his simple response – “you’ve just got to sit with the pain”. I did and, after some time it lessened and I became a little more resilient.
When we don’t run from pain as from a burning building, our character grows. We become a little more able to deal with life on life’s terms. And we become a little more able to help someone else when they go through their pain. And in the process the kingdom of God is demonstrated yet again.