The gift of being able to experience pain

During the week I was reading a chapter from the Stephen Grosz’ book ‘An Examined Life.’ The American psychoanalyst entitled the third chapter ‘The gift of pain.’ At first appearance it seemed a change description for the experience of pain.

He recounts an encounter with the son of a friend who had been for therapy after getting into repeated trouble with the police. Grosz explains how Matt had been born to a 17 year old mother who was a drug user. After moving from a series of shelters the child was taken into foster care at the age of one. Grosz in the course of his conversation with Matt describes how there seemed to be a gap between what the youth was saying and what he was feeling as a listener. The therapist then tried to imagine Matt as a small baby crying ‘I’m hungry, feed me, I’m wet change me, I’m frightened hold me’ and constantly being ignored by an unresponsive mother.

Grosz came to the conclusion that Matt didn’t know how to make someone feel concern for him. Matt never acquired a skill we all need, an ability to make another person worry and care about us. As a consequence Grosz argued that Matt didn’t feel enough emotional pain to overcome his suspicions and accept the offer to meet again. At this point Grosz mentioned the work of the doctor Paul Brand who worked with people suffering from leprosy. The doctor discovered how the deformities experienced by sufferers of leprosy were not a direct result of the disease. Rather the deformities were caused by injury and infection caused by the person’s inability to feel pain, failing to realise when they were harming themselves. In 1972 Doctor Brand wrote ‘if there was one gift he could give to people who were suffering from leprosy, it would be the gift of being able to experience pain’. Grosz reflected how Matt was suffering from psychological leprosy, unable to feel emotional pain and forever in danger of damaging himself. Likewise he argues there is a bit of Matt in all of us; we try to silence painful emotions. However when we succeed in feeling nothing we lose the only means of knowing what hurts us and why. So when we acknowledge and recognise our hurt and pain we can begin the journey of recovery. Jesus in John’s gospel asks us to entrust all our cares and worries to our heavenly Father. Jesus has come to reveal the love of the Father, a love which embraces all those people who in acknowledging their pain can recognise their need for healing, their need for God. Our pain reminds us of fragility and our limitations. By facing up to our problems we can present our needs before God and he will help us to carry our burdens and brokenness. Otherwise we’ll inhabit a dream world where life is lived on the surface and we’ll never experience true and lasting love or joy. God has room in his heart for all men and women.