I have put off writing the second installment for this, but really have little excuse to not start typing right now. At this very moment on Christmas evening, while Amy and the kids are laughing it up and playing cards at the table with her mom and dad (he cheats at them, by the way), I am currently banished to our bedroom by a marvel of modern medicine.
Yesterday, I spent part of Christmas Eve in the ER. This was not my first choice, which was actually meant to be going to the mall and finally buying some Christmas presents while there was still time.
And yet events unfolded and I was sent into the ER by my doctor and suddenly they started getting me prepped for an unexpected day surgery. But then they decided at the last second that I was just barely outside the time window of responding well to it. So they instead put me on nitroglycerin to break up a thrombosis (blood clot) and have me come back for the surgery in either a few hours, days or weeks, depending on how it responds.
If you have never had nitroglycerin before (outside of making your own TNT) and wondered what it feels like, it is easy to recreate the experience. Simply ask a friend or family member - preferably an adult - to stand behind you and carefully but lovingly kick you in the head. You won't get the added benefit of the massive hour long head rush and a couple other cool symptoms, but don't get greedy. The main thing is that within 5 to 20 seconds of taking it, you have a full gown migraine. Enjoy.
My nitro-migraine is barely subsiding right now, but it fortunately has not affected my sarcasm.
The blood clot in question is painful, but no more so than having a lit cigarette pressed against you, so I can't complain. Pain is somewhat relative for me, as I have had chronic nerve pain for over 10 years now. That does not mean it does not wear me down. There are times that it has tested and still tests my patience and faith incredibly.
Pain has long been a great, if not the biggest stumbling block for people on the topics of faith and God.
One of the great apologists of the last century, C. S. Lewis penned his classic "The Problem of Pain" in an attempt to wrestle with some of the questions pain and injustice continually raise in light of a supposedly loving and just God.
In it Lewis suggests that, "In a sense, it (Christianity) creates, rather than solves, the problem of pain, for pain would be no problem unless, side by side with our daily experience of this painful world, we had received what we think a good assurance that ultimate reality is righteous and loving."
In his book, "Where Is God When It Hurts?", Phillip Yancey shares the true story of a friend named Claudia who was going through the agony of chemotherapy for a particularly aggressive cancer and the various church people who visited her in the hospital to see if there was anything at all they could do to make her feel worse.
One church goer told her that she had cancer because she did not have enough faith to pray it away. Another said she was supposed to have cancer, so as to be a shining example of love and patience to the lost. Another said that these suggestions were ridiculous and it was obvious that she only had the disease because of some terrible sin in her life. One just showed up and sang.
I'm assuming that Claudia used the last bit of strength she could muster to sneak off one night to another floor of the hospital to get away from her friends. (She fortunately did recover.)
When we Christians are asked how in the world could an all-loving, all-powerful God allow such pain, suffering and injustice in this world, we usually and sadly have responses that make Claudia's comforters look less than rare.
We honestly do not have too many great or satisfying answers for ourselves, let alone others. When we say that "God moves in mysterious ways", we are using a cliche that is not even in the Bible, but most listeners are fortunately far too courteous to respond by slapping us silly.
If you are unsure how to approach, encourage or generally not kick someone when they are down, here are a couple useful things to know about many who suffer from pain:
1) "Why can't the doctors just fix it?" - We have a very unique mentality toward health issues in the Western world that is very closely mirrored to how our doctors treat us. We expect them to be able to figure out exactly what it is with a microscope, x-ray or MRI, and then fix it by either cutting us or doping us (surgery or medication).
With chronic pain, this is most often unfeasible. Different from acute pain, which is short lived, usually traceable to a specific cause and usually will heal, chronic pain can last years, even lifetimes and can only be managed, not cured.
With my own particular type of chronic pain condition, neuropathic (nerve) pain, by definition "the nerve fibers themselves might be damaged, dysfunctional, or injured. These damaged nerve fibers send incorrect signals to other pain centers."
The pain is just as real as an acute injury, but the pain signals keep getting delivered, long after they should be sent.
Imagine a UPS driver dropping off a package to your house every single day that is addressed to "The Easter Bunny". And no matter how much you swear or throw things at the driver, he keeps bringing the boxes. Now imagine a good friend encouraging you with the practical advice, "why can't you just stop getting the boxes?".
2) "Is the pain just in your head?" - When friends ask me this, I am honest with them and I say "yes". Then I punch them in the stomach and tell them THAT pain is just in THEIR head. Afterward we laugh, but many times they will not call me back.
But the fact is that in both cases, it is true. All pain is nothing more than a perception we have, thanks to our brains. When someone puts their hand on a hot stove, the nerves send signals to the brain, like loyal little UPS drivers, saying that "something is not right here". The brain then takes that info and carefully sends back a message that you might wish to "freak out, flail your arms and scream at this time".
In his aforementioned book, Yancey actually talks a very interesting angle about what he calls the "God given gift of pain" by describing a terrible side effect of those who still in modern time suffer with the disease leprosy.
Many who suffer with leprosy will inflict horrible damage on their own bodies, sometimes deliberately (kids), but most often unintentionally and unknowingly. This is because many are unable to feel pain anymore. So for some, they would not realize the stove's coils were dangerously hot until they smelled something burning.
Chronic pain is somewhat opposite in effect. I have nerve damage in my right arm that almost perpetually makes it feel like I have burned my hand on a stove. Most days, I will have to continually switch fingers used for clicking my computer mouse, as even softly pressing the button feels similar to having a needle jammed into my finger. I wear gloves for almost every month aside from August, because within seconds of stepping outside in the cold, it feels like my hands are being crushed in a vise or stood on by a 250 pound man who does not like me.
Is the pain in my head? Yes. Does that word mean what you think it means? No.
3) "Do you want to pray about it?" - Absolutely. In fact I have been doing so every single day for over 10 years. I sometimes think God is sick of me bringing it up, but I still believe He cares for me immensely.
Oh wait, you meant do I "want to pray about it" with YOU? Um, sure. Wait, who are you? And how did you get in my house?
Actually encouraging or ministering to those who deal with pain is never easy. I feel like my experiences have afforded me a lot more sympathy or empathy (I plan to look up the difference between the two of those words some day) for others who suffer with pain. And I know that the absurdities, pain and injustices of life that people suffer every day and in a million ways often is difficult for me to grasp or wrap my head around.
I have learned that feeling sorry for myself might not necessarily be helpful, but at least it is really unhelpful. I make a point to laugh at myself and others every day, sometimes many times a day. I believe that despite the pain, that I have learned there is a difference between happiness and joy. Happiness comes and goes. Joy is much more lasting and is a gift that we can hold onto or squander.
I try to make others laugh because it makes me happier to do so and because trying to cheer people up instead with my amazing singing voice can be awkward at the office or supermarket. But mostly because I'm an incurable smartass.
But there also is a time to laugh and a time to cry. And sometimes there is a time to just ask people how they are doing and let them vent. It says in Romans 12:15 to, "Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep".
I believe in prayer. I have been prayed for hundreds of times. Does that mean I will never be healed? No, it just means those hundreds who prayed for me to be healed must have some terrible sin in their lives. Kidding!
The next time you see a friend or loved one suffering, instead of being quick to try to fix them or bring them a message from the Lord they must assuredly not be hearing and yet He just told you on the drive over... rather try just spending time with them, listen to them and care. It will mean a lot.
OK, the migraine is mostly gone. I'm gonna go watch Despicable Me with the family now.