Pain and Meaning

spiritual formation, pain, suffering, Dan Ariely, The Upside of Irrationality“Meaningless, meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” Boy, Solomon must have really had a low threshold for pain…

I was reading Dan Ariely’s book, The Upside of Irrationality, the other day, and he mentioned a side experiment he did to slake his curiosity. As a teenager, an accident left him with third degree burns over 70% of his body, and he spent a significant amount of time in the hospital undergoing extensive and extremely painful procedures in order to heal and regain full motion and function of the burned portions of his body. While it was excruciating, he knew that eventually what was happening was necessary.

While doing experiments on pain tolerance, he wondered if having undergone or even currently undergoing such experiences raised one’s pain tolerance. It turned out they did, but there was kind of a twist. Those that were experiencing pain as part of a treatment or therapy had much higher pain tolerances. However, various people with terminal conditions had significantly lower pain tolerances. They couldn’t handle as much. Ariely’s conclusion was that how one understood pain both now and in the past changed how much they could handle any pain. If some pain had been meaningful, any pain was more tolerable.

When I ponder this, I can’t help but think about the fact that, frankly, spiritual growth sometimes stinks. We’re riddled with sin, and dealing with that kind of stuff can really hurt sometimes. True, at times God is gracious, and things actually feel pretty good, but not always. Some kids in growth spurts end up with bruises and shin splints and such. If physical growth is painful sometimes, it seems only natural that spiritual growth would be, too.

Thing is, we don’t have a choice in physical growth. We often do with spiritual, and if we don’t like the painful parts, we can often avoid them. But that means we don’t grow… I think I’ve missed a lot of opportunities that God’s handed to me simply because I didn’t want to deal with the pain that I could see coming. I think of a simple moment in a library where some obnoxious people were yammering away nearby, and I didn’t say anything because I was afraid of how they might respond. No big deal, perhaps, but it was still an opportunity to trust in God’s love rather than give in to fear.

Unlike Ariely, I didn’t see meaning in the pain. I didn’t see the chance for something positive to come out of it, so I couldn’t handle it. I wonder, though, if reframing the way we look at pains and sufferings might help us in our process of becoming like Him. If we saw at least some of those pains as inherently meaningful, a way God was taking us somewhere, even if we weren’t clear on where that was, maybe we’d be able to travel further along the journey with Him. What if suffering and pain weren’t meaningless and instead part of God’s work in making us holy? If we believed that, could we end up being more holy?

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2 responses

  1. As twisted and ghoulish as it sounds to us, pain is God’s greatest gift toward providing the freedom and union with God for which we ultimately long. In the same way cooking good food requires pealing, chopping and heat from which come beauty, and nourishment, our own formation must be dependent on something similar. Damn!

    September 11, 2012 at 5:25 pm

    • Calling pain God’s greatest gift is a bit of a stretch, I imagine, but we do misunderstand the value, for sure!

      September 11, 2012 at 11:27 pm

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