Pain in our culture

This post is in response to an article shared with me by a good friend. The other posts in this series are The Experience of Pain; Hard-heartedness; Suffering and Character; and The Redemption of Pain.

Emlet says, “some cultures expect suffering and learn not to fear it; other cultures suffer less but fear it more.” My defences immediately raise! I don’t want to consider that I make my suffering worse through inappropriate fear. I think the issue is more subtle than that – cultures may fear suffering or not; individuals within those cultures feel permitted or not to express, and seek support for, their pain. Working only on anecdote here, the people I know who have grown up in cultures that might be considered to least fear suffering can be the least sympathetic to its presence. In these cultures, suffering ceases to be something to be deplored and relieved, and becomes something only to deny and endure. People are praised for stoicism, and the corollary is that they are castigated for expressing pain. People have to learn to hide their pain; to deny its presence in their lives.

Does our culture exacerbate the experience of pain? I’m not convinced. I cope better with severe pain when I know I have a painkiller I can take if I choose; having the choice, even between pain and side-effects, makes it easier to cope with the pain even as I don’t take the painkiller. Those of us living with suffering know that there is no such thing as avoiding pain at all costs; there is only swapping from one form of suffering to another.

Maybe westerners particularly struggle with temporary suffering – man flu? – but to the extent that is the case, I think it makes us better with chronic suffering, precisely because we recognise it as an abnormality and an evil that is to be reduced where possible. We see people who suffer as people who should be helped and cared for, not told nor expected to pretend to be content with it. There is a great difference between contentment in all circumstances and being content with the presence of evil in our world. The suffering is still there; it is still real and it is still suffering.

Has western society lost the ability to cope with suffering? Or has it learnt that refusing relief is not a virtue? We say westerners want relief beyond what is reasonable; in my experience, people with chronic illness and pain swiftly come to the end of medical options. It doesn’t take long to work out that the medical profession often cannot help. Perhaps people with temporary illness have an expectation that the medical profession can cure them, but it doesn’t take long for a chronic illness to disabuse a person of that idea. Does the alleged culture of high medical expectations in this country say more about healthy people – the ones who, through medical advances, have avoided the many ills still present in less developed countries – than it does about those people enduring the illnesses that medicine has not found a way to relieve?

There is a meme on social media that says, “you can have several bad days in a row and handle it fine; then one day you lose it because you’ve gone so long taking it that you eventually get to a point where you just can’t do it anymore. After a period of inconsolable grief, you pick yourself up and begin the cycle anew.” I don’t think we are worse at handling suffering; when it comes to it, I think we are better, because we admit or weakness rather then trying to hide it from those around us, ourselves and God. The rigidity of emotion it takes to hide suffering leads to bitterness and, eventually, callousness; the tears not shed cause more harm then those that fall.

We should never pride ourselves on our strength in suffering. We should admit that we need help, if only to keep our hearts in a state of softness that means we are able to reach out to help and comfort others who suffer. More importantly, Paul did not say that he was strong in his weakness – he says God was strong in Paul’s weakness. That meant Paul still felt and suffered weakness, even as he rejoiced in the glory it brought to God. Similarly, Paul’s contentment in bad circumstances came from his hope of glory, not from any virtue of stoicism. The Greek boy who let a fox eat his guts rather than show weakness is a fool, not a hero.

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