I’ve always considered myself a tolerant and empathetic person. In fact, I consider tolerance and empathy among the highest virtues that one could strive toward. Matthew 22:39 says “Love your neighbor as yourself.” In many areas, I have firsthand experience that helps me put myself into other’s shoes and identify with their struggles. But one area where I’ve been deficient is understanding and identifying with the physical pain of others. Oh, I’ve fallen, hit my thumb with a hammer, cut myself or scraped my knee. But these were always temporary, transitory. In a week or two I’d be fine and moving on.
Years before Norm died, I was told that he had arthritis very bad and that he was in pain a lot. I worked alongside him. He never complained or acted like he was in pain. One day I asked him about his arthritis. “How often are you in pain,” I asked. “All the time.” I was dumbfounded. How could that be? He was always working; always moving about. I just didn’t have a frame of reference to understand that. I had never experienced it. Later I learned that his chronic pain went through the night and robbed him of sleep. He was lucky to get a few hours of sleep each night, but often none at all.
I am familiar with several others in our congregation that suffer with chronic health issues. It affects their ability to walk, sit, lay down, drive, travel and sleep. Many have been dealing with them for years, and some with no foreseeable resolution. Doctors try one thing, then another and yet pain persists. Paul complained about a thorn in his side (2 Cor. 12:7). We don’t know what it was, but it bothered him enough to include it in his letter. Intellectually, I could empathize with my brothers and sisters who experienced chronic pain, but I didn’t have any firsthand experience to truly say that I could understand what they might be feeling. That is, until a few weeks ago.
On September 1, a group of us flew up to Juneau, Alaska to retrace Norm’s fishing grounds. The weather was typical for Southeast Alaska: cloudy, wet and cold. Norm’s brother, Bud, took us on his old sailboat, and we visited the coves, inlets, villages and passages where Norm used to fish. Pulling into the dock at Elfin Cove, I stepped off the boat to secure the line. The dock was slippery, and my feet went out from under me like a Keystone Cop. I landed flat on my back. More embarrassed than hurt, I got up and secured the line. Taking inventory, I didn’t feel bruised or sore, so I just continued on.
That night, I couldn’t get comfortable in our berth. Moving certain ways, my right shoulder ached. No matter how I laid, it hurt. And the pain would often radiate down my arm as far as my hand. Berths on this sailboat were cramped and uncomfortable, so I assumed it was that. But as the days went on, the pain continued. During the day, I would ignore the pain. At night, it would keep me awake. “This will pass,” I told myself. “It always has before. This will be no different.” It’s a pulled muscle or something like that. I just need to let it heal.
Returning from Alaska, the pain continued and got worse. I went to the doctor and they confirmed my worst fear: they didn’t know what was causing the pain. The X-rays were normal. Muscle and reflex responses were normal. I moved on to physical therapy. It has been four weeks now with very little change.
So now I can begin to understand what my brothers and sisters experience with chronic pain. I can begin to understand their frustration and discouragement when doctors cannot figure out how to deal with it. And finally, I can begin to appreciate their courage and strength in persevering under such trying circumstances. 1 Peter 3:8 says, “Sympathize with each other...Be tenderhearted, and keep a humble attitude.” It has been humbling for me.