Painful Grace
March 17th, 2010

Two Sundays ago the Family P went out for our first long run of the year.  There is a large city park a few minutes from our house that is crisscrossed with running paths including a loop around the perimeter that measures about six miles.  During the spring, summer, and fall the three of us run this loop about once a week.  We meet up after work, or we venture out on weekend afternoons.  IEP smiles as we push him along, feeling the breeze brush across his face.  And GAP and I plug along behind him, taking care to ensure that he doesn’t take off his shoes and toss them overboard. 

There are many things I love about these runs.  The fresh air.  The sunshine (and sometimes rain).  The people-watching.  The sheer exhaustion that I feel at the finish.  And, the sore muscles that usually arrive the following day. 

That’s right, I love having sore muscles.  I love the burn in my quads and hamstrings.  I love the ache around the back of my ribcage.  I love feeling that distinct twinge every time I get up from my desk or walk a flight of stairs. 

Chances are that when it comes to pain, you fall into one of two camps: The “there is good pain and bad pain” camp, or the “there is only bad pain” camp.  Clearly, I’m in the former.

Good pain is the pain you feel when you’ve done something big (like run six miles for the first time after a winter of elliptical easy street).  You feel it because you’ve pushed yourself, and maybe accomplished something.  And when that burning sensation fires up inside your legs, you can think back on what your body did; the way that it performed when called upon; the way that it perhaps achieved more than you thought it could.  Pain is good when it serves a larger purpose.

Bad pain, on the other hand is everything else.  It’s the stubbed toe, the arthritic knee, the sprained ankle, and the crick in your neck.  It’s part of life, but it’s no picnic. 

Physical pain is mostly black and white.  For the most part you know in the moment which variety of pain you’re feeling.   Emotional pain is a more complicated animal.  The lines between good pain and bad pain blur across the human experience.  Bad pain can find redemption and a larger purpose at some as-yet-undetermined time in your life.  To wit…

Your first broken heart was a misery.  You were in love.  You believed that nothing could compare to the affection you had for this person.  You believed it would never end.  But it did.  (Hopefully you were no older than 17 or so.)  In the moment you were crushed, but over time you came to understand that heartbreak is universal; that having sat in a crumpled mass on the floor with nothing but a box of tissues and a melodramatic journal entry for comfort helped you understand how handle future break-ups with compassion and kindness; and that having suffered the end of something special will help you the next time around to see the gaping cracks that felled the prior relationship when they are merely fault lines.  The pain was real, but it was surmountable, and it gave you arguably more than did the relationship itself (especially if you were only 17).

If you really look, there are inordinate opportunities for pain to repurpose itself into something more worthwhile.  The loss of a loved one helps you reach out to someone else and to mitigate their pain.  Your encounter with a disease serves as a catalyst for your activism.  Your experience with prejudice opens your eyes to your own untenable judgments.  In most cases the benefits of these redemptive experiences don’t begin outweigh the original pain.  Offering your shoulder to a thousand crying eyes will never compensate for the loss of someone you loved.  But perhaps in some way it validates that pain; helps you to transform it (even a tiny portion of it) into something that borders on grace.

I’ve been dealt very little pain in my life.  This is all mostly theory to me – the untested musings of someone whose life has spared her the chance to test her hypotheses.  So perhaps my naiveté betrays me.  Perhaps I seem an innocent fool.  Perhaps with time, and the wear it brings, I will find the concept of transubstantiating pain into grace utterly preposterous.       

But perhaps if I set my mind on this course now, when that pain shows up on my doorstep – dull, dreary, and altogether uninvited – I will embrace it.  I will wrap it around myself like a cloak.  I will feel its fibers and breathe its scent.  I will own it.  And when I am done with it, or perhaps before, I will begin to unravel those threads.  I will watch them pile up at my feet, and I will run them through my weary fingers.  And when the time is right I will reweave them into something of value; maybe even something quite lovely.  And I will give it to someone who needs it.  And it will warm them in the face of their own dull, dreary, and altogether uninvited pain. 

Again, I don’t know if this is reasonable to hope for.  But like the six miles I ran two Sundays ago, I think I might find that my body and mind are capable of more than I realize.

8 Responses to “Painful Grace”

  1. Sarah Says:

    I’m so so so glad that you added that last tiny paragraph in there. Not only does it tie it all together, but it redefines your suggestion that pain can be useful in the end INTO we are capable of more than we know. Which I take to mean in my own life: good can come from bad, pain can be followed by light, we are not defined by the losses in our lives.

    This is a tough subject for me, however. I have a considerable amount of pain in my past. Not as much as some, of course, but plenty more than others. And yes, having experienced many of the things I have makes me more able to reach out, helps me to sympathize and lend a hand, drives me to be more understanding of others’ struggles and faults. But would I wish these things away if I could? I would. So while there is a positive, it does not abolish the negative. (Not that I think you are suggesting this, to be clear.)

    It’s a rich post. One that has me thinking. I think it’s dangerous to be thinking this hard this early in the morning…so we’ll just leave it at that!

  2. Nicki Says:

    Wonderful words! Definitely thought-provoking. I am the good pain, bad pain person but that may be because I am a runner.

    Thanks, Gale!

  3. Anne Says:

    Really nice post. Like you, the pain in my life has been rather small. I’m lucky. Emotional pain teaches us something, and for that I am always grateful. Otherwise, it would be nothing but pure pain. I’m never glad to have experience pain, but with pain comes growth.

    As for physical pain? I believe it can be good too…like your run. But I also believe (and I realize this isn’t exactly the point of your post), that people take physical pain too far. Our bodies communicate with us. I hate that expression, “play through the pain”. some pain is good (although I’ve never experienced it, I’d venture to say childbirth is an example). But a little pain avoidance can be healthy too.

  4. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    I love this, in so many ways. I always have told my Mama that I’ve learned far more about myself from pain/difficulty than I have from success. It was never easy and certainly never fun, but illuminating. Because, who’d have thunk it? I’m stronger than I think.

  5. Eva Says:

    Oh, this topic is challenging. Of course, you wouldn’t ever wish for pain in your life. But since loss and emotional pain is an inevitable part of life, we might try to prepare ourselves for it and grow through it.

    What is the saying? It’s sad to say goodbye, but I’m so glad we had this time together. In other words, the pain of losing someone is hard, but it’s worth it because of the joy they brought to your life. You would rather suffer through the pain than not have known them at all.

  6. D Says:

    I am a person who experienced a lot of pain in childhood in terms of disabilities, deaths and reversals of financial fortunes. As hard as it was growing up, (particularly as tween and teenager) my adult life has been relatively pain free by comparison. A combination of good choices and a lot of luck have resulted in fulfilling and happy life. I know that I am the person I am due to my life experiences early and late. I am confident that the pain then helped shape me into the empathetic person who appreciates much that others take for granted. Still if given the choice, I would go back in time and right all those wrongs. I see your point about good and bad pain but I like to think I don’t need pain as a motivator or a reminder that what I’ve done is worthwhile. But your post did remind me of a favorite quote from my favorite movie “Shadowlands.” CS Lewis’ love says that with respect to death and love, simply: “The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.” it just sums it up for me.

  7. Gale Says:

    D, thank you for this response. I agree with you that we don’t necessarily need the pain to bring goodness into our lives and the lives of others. Rather, what I was trying suggest was that given the pain, we should try to make something good out of it. We are the entire set of our experiences. Unfortunately we cannot choose which ones shape us. I hope that we all take that set of experiences and create the best possible version of ourselves from it.

    Lovely “Shadowlands” quote.

  8. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    I’m with TKW and have learned more about myself from my occasional dealings with pain than from my frequent dealings with its absence.

    Your post has me thinking about parenting: as a mother, I try to minimize my children’s experience of pain, much as my parents did for me. Yet I acknowledge the lessons that have come from pain. I’m not suggesting that parents should force these lessons on their kids, but it’s interesting to think that I might be depriving them of some life knowledge.

    I also wonder if there’s some threshold up to which pain is edifying and after which it is destructive.