Sunday, December 16, 2012

Does Pain Have Meaning?

The passenger jet slammed into the ground killing six people in the process.  But 96 survived due to miraculous flying, creative ingenuity, intense calm and, perhaps, an act of God.  Most credited the pilot of that flight for his pinpoint precision crash landing in an open field after an heroic display of aeronautical genius that was unlikely to be ever repeated.  But the real story recounted in “Flight”, a recent movie starring Denzel Washington, was about the pilot’s alcoholism, stubborn denial and reckless living.  Covering up the pain in his own life he caused inestimable suffering in the lives of those he cared about.  It was only because of the plane crash, and his own personal crash that followed, that he was able to come face-to-face with reality, with the meaning and importance of pain and the need to deal with it. 
The pain caused by Parkinson's is rarely discussed. It seems to be overshadowed by the tremor, stiffness and the other non-motor symptoms.  But the pain can be very real.  Painful cramping of leg or arm muscles, pain from distortion caused by dystonia, “frozen shoulder” pain and other results of muscular rigidity are but a few of the physical consequences of PD.  And then of course there is the psychological pain of misunderstanding, loneliness, rejection and the significant sense of loss of quality of life.  Pain comes in all shapes and sizes from acute to aching, chronic to intermittent, unbearable to inconvenient. 
Our society places a great deal of emphasis on alleviating pain.  In fact, a significant part of the pharmaceutical industry feeds our culture’s addiction to pain avoidance.  But does pain have importance and meaning? 
Victor Frankl was more than a psychologist, he was a prophet.  His basic theory, contrary to that of Freud, was that humanity has a primary need for purpose not pleasure.  He came to this conclusion in a Nazi concentration camp where prisoners suffered excruciating physical and psychological pain.  Many of his fellow prisoners gave up hope in the face of almost certain extermination at the hands of their captors.  But Frankl found that the simple antidote was to believe that life had meaning.  There is purpose in the pain, even if it leads to death.  He determined that if he were to die it would be as a martyr, not a victim.  He said, “In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice”. 
Pain, loss, suffering, they all bring us face-to-face with some of the deepest questions we can ask.  Our persistent pursuit of pleasure can easily blind us to reality.  If pain is the greatest teacher, and there can be no building of character without pain, then when we experience pain we must learn how to suffer without self-pity or “sedation”.  Here are some principles I am grappling with in my own confrontation with pain.

1.     Pain is not the enemy.  It simply forces us to come to grips with its cause.
2.     Listen to your pain.  It is trying to tell you something important.
3.     Search for meaning in the pain.  Don’t give up until you find it.
4.     Pain leaves a legacy.  Choose for it to be characterized with courage.

At the end of the movie, the pilot, played by Denzel Washington, finally recognized that he could not run away, continuing to deceive himself and others.  To ignore the painful lessons of life is to live a lie, which is not to live at all.

“Endure and persist; this pain will turn to good by and by. 

1 comment:

  1. Good writing Bob. It struck a cord with me. Thank you.