Unemployment, too many hours at work, too many kids, infertility, spoiled and entitled children, poverty, sickness, death, leaky pipes, hurt feelings, abuse, neglect, apostasy, ignorance. There are as many varieties of trials as there are people, almost. Events that would sail right over the top of someone might punch the next person in the gut. The common underpinnings of all of our trials is that they cause us uncomfortable amounts of pain. They might not affect your spouse or neighbor in the same way. Your child leaving the church causes you intense mental and spiritual pain. But your neighbor doesn’t seem to be bothered by it at all. The trial is not the event, it is the pain. If I told you that my biggest trial is having four needy young children and doing much of the parenting alone while my husband does his medical training, you might say, “Oh yeah, I’ve been there. That was hard for me too.” Or you might say, “Suck it up! That’s not a trial, it’s a blessing!” And I would reply–it is hard for me. It often taxes me beyond my capacity to endure. Some days I feel tremendous amounts of emotional and mental anguish. And it brings me to my knees.
C.S. Lewis wrote about how God can use pain to humble us in The Problem With Pain. “We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” I’m not saying that God causes all of our pain, but I do think that He uses pain to teach us because that is when we are most attentive. So how we respond to the pain is what changes us. We can harden ourselves against it or we can melt into it and learn submissiveness.
First option: Hardening ourselves against it. Brene Brown gave a very good TED Talk about vulnerability and “whole-heartedness”. She spent 6 years researching how people connect with each other and discovered that the root of connection was vulnerability. I think we call it humility. Loving ourselves in spite of our faults. Being true to who we are, not pretending to be anyone else. Which is uncomfortable when we are imperfect and ashamed of our weaknesses. I think it also applies to dealing with pain. We try to mask our pain or to ignore it. We feel dumb that something like being left out of a party causes us so much grief. “No, seriously, it doesn’t bother me. I’m fine,” we tell ourselves. And when the pain rears back up, we shove it back down with 30 Rock or some cheesecake. But it is there, waiting to be attended to. Brown discovered in her research that: “You cannot selectively numb emotion. You cannot say, here is the bad stuff–here’s vulnerability, here’s grief, here’s shame, here’s fear, here’s disappointment. I don’t want to feel these. I’m going to have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin . . You can’t numb those hard feelings without numbing the other affects, our emotions. You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness. And then we are miserable and we are looking for purpose and meaning and then we feel vulnerable, so then we have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. It becomes this dangerous cycle.” Shoving our pain back down beneath the surface shoves everything beneath the surface. We have to rely more and more on external stimuli to make us happy because we can’t summon the feeling on our own. “If they are going to forget to include me in their evite every time, I am just not going to try to be their friend. I’d rather just go get fajitas on my own, anyway. I won’t invest myself too much in any friendship because it has the power of making me so vulnerable and sad.” But turning ourselves off socially also excludes the opportunity of the joy that comes from friendship, connection, belonging and love. There is good and bad in everything.
Second option: Melting into submissiveness. I have learned some simple things recently about dealing with my own pain. I’m sure I will be thinking about this for the rest of my decades on earth, so here is my pre-school start.
1) Pain brings us closer to Christ. In moments of the most intense agony (labor and delivery, bone marrow procedures, etc.) I have heard almost every person say that they felt like they were “walking through the valley of the shadow of death” or that they felt “like Christ in Gethsemane”. When we experience pain that is beyond our understanding or experience, we search for someone who can understand what we are going through. And that someone is always Christ. He suffered all things that we might not suffer if we would come unto Him. And if are having a hard time coming unto Him, he might send a little pain our way to remind us. “And my people must needs be chastened until they learn obedience, if it must needs be, by the things which they suffer.” (D&C 105:6).
2) Acknowledge and lean into the pain. It is there to teach us something. Try to identify what, exactly, is causing the pain. Being betrayed, being forgotten, being criticized unjustly, being overwhelmed. . . Not just the event, but the feeling creating the pain. Now, feeling the intensity of pain it causes you–vow to never cause that pain in anyone else. Pain can create intense, driving compassion in us if we will let it. Christ is the most compassionate and merciful because He suffered the most pain. He knows exactly how we feel. And now that you have miscarried or lost your job, you know exactly how your cousin feels when it happens to her. And you say the right thing, or don’t say anything, just give her a hug, because you know what she is feeling. That pain you suffered has become an asset to your character. If you mask the pain, it never hollows you out to make room for all of that divine compassion and love.
3) In our trials, our first priority is not to fix the situation, we just need to deal with the pain. Turn to Christ and let Him show us how to heal. Then, with peaceful heads and hearts, we can address the situation.
4) We can never judge someone else’s trial and pain. What might be disabling to one person wouldn’t affect the next at all. Mental illness is like that–you cannot judge the situation, just trust that the person feels pain about it. “She doesn’t want to leave the house?! What’s wrong with her?” But if we were feeling her pain, we wouldn’t want to leave the house either. We also can’t judge those poor people in the third world, or the rich people in Scandinavia. Sure, it would be a trial for us to leave our comfortable homes and assortment of shoes and clothes, but it is probably just fine for them. (They are stronger than we are).
Being able to isolate pain as the source of all of my trials has really clarified my view of the world. We can handle anything, with Christ to help us. All situations aside, He suffered for our pain, weakness and temptations. That covers every possible situation. Sure, maybe He didn’t live your life when your parents divorced and then one killed themselves and then you got Fiber Myalgia and your son doesn’t want to serve a mission. But He does know how you feel about it, because He suffered for that pain and weakness. And He can help us come through to the other side. stronger, more compassionate and with peace in our hearts.