In my mind, I’m a world-class body builder who can bench press a VW bug. My biceps are so large my arms can’t hang straight and my six-pack has morphed into a twelve-pack. That’s how buff I am.
All fantasy, of course, but it sure would have come in handy a week ago, when a fantastic Christmas present from my mom demanded that I drive to France and move a LARGE piece of furniture to Germany with the help of only one other person. I lifted, I pushed, I pulled, I twisted…and I did something nasty to my lower back. The onset was slow in coming, but once the full-fledged damage made itself known, my average morning commute from my bed to my couch went something like this: “Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch and oh-please-make-it-stop OUCH!” The only position in which I was comfortable was flat on my back. Everything else, whether it demanded moving a fraction of an inch or driving a mile, was excruciating. I briefly asked God if I could go back and repeat any of my surgeries rather than be put through this much greater discomfort, but I think He dismissed the plea as the ramblings of a pain-killer-warped mind!
Pain. C. S. Lewis called it “God’s megaphone to reach a deaf world.” I think it was Bon Jovi who called it “a burning fire that screams your bleepin’ name”! It’s a constant in life. From our first stubbed toe to our last pulled muscle, from our first broken heart to our last wrenching loss, pain is inevitable.
I’ve been receiving emails lately from BFA students who have graduated in the past few years. The pain they describe is something much less tangible than what I’ve been living with since last Tuesday. Theirs is a pain that can’t be remedied by eight ibuprofens a day and a strategically placed hot pad. It’s a pain that found me speaking, at five a.m., to a young woman I love. At the time of the call, she was sitting in the rain on a rock beside a dumpster outside her dorm, utterly bereft and convinced that she would not make it through the torturous transition into adulthood. The emails, the phone calls…they all point to the same certainty that the pain will never ebb, that the wrenching will never ease, that the lostness will never find a sense of recognition. I’ve known that dark abyss. I’ve wallowed in its misery and clawed at its slick walls and come to the same debilitating conclusion these former students have reached—that life will never get better, that joy will never return, that wholeness will never be mine to grasp again.
From the bottom of the abyss, there is little perspective and even less ability to envision a brighter future. Our vision is crippled by the impossibly tall, hostile walls of fear and helplessness as they narrow inexorably and threaten to crush us. We long for healing—for that miraculous moment when the darkness will swirl away like coffee down a drain.
Healing seldom comes in a burst of miraculous wholeness. One of the biggest mistakes we can make is to hope for something that sudden. I think we sometimes assume that a gradual healing isn’t healing at all, but that an instant wellness is proof of God’s intervention. I disagree. And my spasming back and weak legs, this week, reminded me of that fact. For days, it was all I could do to fold myself, wincing and cringing, into my car for the short drive to school. In class, if I dropped a board marker, one of the students had to pick it up for me, and if I stood from the piano stool too fast, I had to grasp the edge of the instrument until the screaming pain in my back and leg subsided.
I got home from school today, intent on plopping down on my heating bad again, and was inserting my key in the front door when I realized that I’d made it out of my car without mumbling idle threats to rusty vertebrae and pinched nerves. I realize AFTER the fact, that for the first time in a week, I’d walked down the steps to my apartment without having to pause and allow my back to rest. Looking back, I’m not sure when the change happened, but it did. It did.
The lesson here? It’s very simple, really, though I temporarily lost track of it in my post-furniture-moving pain. It’s a truth I’ve been repeating to pre-graduation seniors ever since I’ve been at BFA. The bad days will make themselves known in unmistakable ways. There’s no need to waste time looking for those. But those small inklings that things are getting better? Those tiny brightenings, those almost insignificant and random acts of kindness we might miss because we’re so overwhelmed by grief? They’re much more difficult to see than the darkness, but so much more important to acknowledge. So if you’re one of those people whose pain is so overwhelming that you can’t fathom it ever getting bearable, would you please consider these actions?
1. Allow more time to pass before concluding that your life will always be this way.
2. Make it a regular exercise to acknowledge the smallest of good things that have happened to you each day. Write them down to give them more weight.
3. Every couple of weeks, look back. See how bad things were a while ago. Consider what small progress you’ve made—however small it is (like me getting out of my car without pain for the first time) and be grateful for that. I still can’t put on my pants without someone shoving a cattle-prod into my spine, but I can lean into my bathroom mirror to apply my mascara without hitting the ceiling and yelping—that’s progress. It’s not full healing, but it’s PROGRESS. And that’s cause to celebrate.
Some pictures of a recent Sunday afternoon tea…