The Reality of Pain

Rene Descartes’ simple statement, “I think, therefore I am,” shaped philosophical dialog from his time forward.  It is possible — logically — to question the existence of everything, and philosophers seem to enjoy doing it.  Descartes proposed that the act of rationality required for doubting proves the existence of the doubter.  The undeniability of the doubt provides a basis from which to infer the reality of the world, and a foundation for truth itself.

I’m sure not many of us have felt a need to prove our existence or that we or the world itself are real, but the question does come up in popular media.  Are we just dreaming?  Or, are we being dreamed?  Are we delusional, insane, hallucinating? Can we count on our sense perceptions? What is the difference between a “real” human being and an android?  Will the advance of artificial intelligence force us to rethink reason?

Early in my graduate studies I got into an intense, prolonged debate with a fellow student, an atheist.  When it seemed I had him on the ropes he did something I was completely unprepared for.  He shrugged and said, “Well, reason is just the result of cultural conditioning.  You have your rationality, I have mine.”  I said, “What about math? 2+2=4?”  He laughed.  “Math is culturally relative too.”

That was my first encounter with post-modernism, though I did not even know the term.  Now, it is the water we swim in.

The big questions are still there: What is true? What is real? How can you know? But there is no more confidence that we can find the answers with our senses and our minds.  All we have now is consensus, the way most people see things, or the way the most influential people see things.  In the absence of truth there is just perspective, and the power to enforce it.

But there is one thing that we can’t so easily dismiss.  Pain.  We can tell ourselves that it is not real, that it is an illusion, just like everything else.  But when they are really hurting that does not help most people.  Try telling a yourself a toothache or a kidney stone or a bad case of epididymitis is an illusion.

Our bodies can be pretty insistent and they may be our salvation.

It is almost impossible to deny the reality of pain, partly because it is impossible to do that kind of philosophical gymnastics when your body is really hurting.  That part of the brain just doesn’t work except under fairly congenial physical circumstances.  When truth hurts it is hard to deny, even if we don’t believe in it.

The late Dallas Willard, former chair of the philosophy department at USC, and fervent Christian, used to quip: “Truth is what you run into when you are wrong.” And it is often a painful encounter, as when you stub your toe on the coffee table in the dark on your way to the kitchen.  The existence of the coffee table was no longer theoretical.  There are true and false answers to the question, “Where is the coffee table?” And there are real consequences when our “perspective” about its location is wrong.

Trivial mistakes like the location of the coffee table are addressed through a very short feedback loop.  The information is transmitted from foot to brain and back to foot in nanoseconds.  The same thing happens with the finger on the hot stove.  Thanks to our lightning fast reflexes we get away with a blister instead of charred flesh.

What about the other things we get wrong, things that really matter? 

Now that I am well past mid-life I wish the more important things in life had shorter feedback loops. We can be wrong for a long, long time and do lots of damage to ourselves and others, and not know it for 30 years, too late for any correction to make much of a difference.  I guess this is the job of the conscience, but mine is not as loud as I might have wished.  Why can’t it be as unignorable as my little toe?!

If you are wrong about something, how soon do you want to know it?  How will you feel about someone who helps you realize it?  We know the rational answers, but there is another factor, isn’t there?  The painful consequences of being wrong are usually in the distance.  The pain of admitting we are wrong is all too present. Wounded pride hurts right now. And then there is the pain of making changes.

Missionary physician, Paul Brand, spent the bulk of his career working with leprosy patients in India.  Leprosy is primarily a neurological disorder.  Lepers lose feeling in their hands and feet.  They hurt themselves without knowing it.  Rats can chew their toes in the night without waking them up.  Cuts and scrapes accumulate without the constant minute feedback we rely on to coordinate our movements.  The sores and infections and tissue degradation we associate with leprosy come from the absence of pain.

The title of Dr. Brand’s book says it all.  “Pain: The Gift that Nobody Wants.”  We seldom regard pain as a gift, but without it no animal can survive.

Pain is a universal human experience.  Philosophies and religions vary widely.  Same with temperament and intelligence and culture.  But we all feel pain, physically and emotionally and spiritually.  And we all hurt in remarkably similar ways.  We are vulnerable creatures in a dangerous world.  And we are creatures with deep longings that this world cannot fully satisfy.  The fact that it sometimes comes close to satisfying them only makes it worse.

For C.S. Lewis this reality served as a pointer to God.  If human beings have longings that this world cannot fulfil it may be that we were meant for another world, ultimately.  Here we thirst, and there is water, we hunger, and there is food.  But what of the longings of the heart, that undeniable sense that there has to something more than this, even when on the surface it seems that every need has been met?  Such desires are invitations to lift our eyes above the horizon.  And to question those who would tell us that we are just a bundle of random molecules.

Descartes was convincing in his day.  But pain may in fact be the ultimate proof of our existence.  “I hurt, therefore I am.”  I desire so much it hurts, therefore I am.”  God has made us for a kind of life that can be only partially realized here on earth.  And pain tells us that this earth is not exactly as it should be.  Something has gone wrong.  Both pains are invitations.

Of course, past a certain point of intensity such attempts to make sense of pain fall short.  Lewis found this so in his bereavement over his wife’s death. It overwhelmed even his formidable rational capacities and he was undone. He wrote about it honestly, and some think he may have lost his faith at least for a while.

No answer to the problem of pain even approaches adequacy that does not include what we are promised in Scripture: a new Heaven and new Earth, where all things are put right and every tear is wiped away, where every pain becomes a distant fading memory, if that, and all is caught up in a quality of life and joy and fulfilment that goes beyond our imaginations.

In the meantime we hold on, and we experience pain and longings, and we try to learn from them. Hopefully we turn toward God in the midst of them, and not away.  It’s better for us if we do. But it is OK to ask questions, like Job.  In fact that may be the most important thing we can do.

I will never forget Dr. Dennis Kinlaw’s statement at the memorial service for my brother, who died at age 25 under seemingly meaningless circumstances.  He said, “God, in His infinite mercy, said, ‘I will make man’s life painful and enigmatic enough that he will never be able to escape the question why? and is there something I might have missed?'”

This could seem harsh. Most of us legitimately struggle with the idea of a God who allows pain.  But what would become of us if our existence in a world that has turned its back on its Creator were not painful?  Like lepers, what damage might we do to ourselves and to others?

When pain does drive us to ask what we might be missing, and we stop to listen, there is often a still, small voice that answers, saying: “You are on the wrong track.”  There is often an invitation to change course, to reorient yourself, to “Come unto me.”

But sometimes all we get is the reminder that, for now, we too are part of something that has gone badly wrong, and we are not exempt from the wrongness.  We get an inkling that the arc of God’s redemption extends beyond the horizon of our life-times, and the limits of our imagination.  And then we add our puzzled tears to the groaning of creation (Rom 8:19-23) in hopeful anticipation of the Day when all things are made Right and New.

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