The Gift of Pain

Some time ago I found myself fascinated reading the biography of Dr. Paul Wilson Brand (1914-2003). A world-renowned, extraordinary, gifted Orthopedic Surgeon who unraveled the riddle of leprosy which has plagued the world for centuries.

The son of missionary parents, Dr. Brand spent his early years in the mountains of southwest India. Dr. Paul Brand did not set out to become a doctor. Initially he refused to follow in his father’s footsteps and study medicine, and he trained as a carpenter and builder. This skill he later used in a remarkable way – teaching leprosy-affected people with damaged, insensitive hands how to do carpentry and woodwork without further injuring their fingers and hands. It was in India that Dr. Brand first came across “leprosy beggars”, deformed, blind and crippled by the disease. Deeply affected by the acute anguish and isolation of people afflicted with leprosy, he began to ask the tough questions: “Do the hands and feet of leprosy-affected people just fall off? What causes the terrible deformities of leprosy? Can anything be done to prevent them or restore the damage?”

Very little was known about the true cause of leprosy deformities. It was generally believed that the hands and feet of infected people simply disintegrated or rotted away as a direct result of the disease. A senior colleague, Dr. Robert Cochrane, challenged Dr. Paul Brand to use his skills as an orthopedic surgeon to find out why people with leprosy developed deformed hands, and to try to find an effective treatment. Dr. Brand drew on experience he had gained during WWII with polio-paralyzed and war-injured hands. He undertook extensive research on damaged hands to test muscle strength and sensation. There were many obstacles to overcome – not the least being prejudice and resistance to using surgical skills on people with leprosy, and allowing them access to hospital care. Through his research in South India, Dr. Brand changed forever the world’s perceptions and treatments of leprosy-affected people.

First, he pioneered the startling idea that the loss of fingers and toes in leprosy was due entirely to infection and was thus preventable.

Second, because leprosy as an infection attacks chiefly the nervous system, resultant tissue abuse occurs and the patient loses the warnings of pain. This was a total new idea!

Dr. Paul Brand actually discovered the gift of physical pain, claiming that because leprosy destroyed the sensation of pain in affected parts of the body, pain-deprived people inadvertently injured, destroyed themselves or lost limbs and body parts. He once watched horrified as a person with leprosy reached directly into a charcoal fire to retrieve a potato someone had dropped. He saw one man hard at work in the garden, oblivious to blood running down his hand; Dr. Brand examined the shovel and found a nail protruding just at the spot his hand had been gripping. Foot injuries were easy to explain. If an ankle turned, tearing tendon and muscle, the leprosy patient would simply adjust and walk with a crooked gait. No warning system of pain announced the need to rest the ankle or seek treatment. Dr. Brand discovered that rats and animals would come into the open-air wards at night while his patients slept and caused injury to their body limbs… The patients slept through it all! Later on Dr. Brand was able to connect his research to the most advanced cases of diabetes where people loose sensitivity to pain!

Dr. Brand’s biography made a profound impact on the way I think about pain. Never before, in my wildest imagination I thought I could actually call PAIN a gift… Never before, I understood what the “Hell of painlessness” must be like! What happens to the soul of a person that disconnects from pain through drugs? What is the “painless” behavior like?

Our American culture predisposes us to avoid pain, run away from pain and deny pain at almost any cost. We simply hate pain! Don’t we? We don’t know what to do with someone in pain. We institutionalize that person as soon as possible or avoid them altogether! Yet, pain is a sign of life! Physical pain is a sign of life. Emotional pain is a sign of emotional life.

During the last few months I have experienced the most intense, excruciating emotional pain of my entire life. It doesn’t matter what the source of my pain is for the purpose of this article.

Here is what I have learned about the “gift of pain” in the agony of my own soul:

1. Emotional pain can be a gift from God.

My goodness! If anything, emotional pain has just reminded me how alive I am! How I experience loss says a lot about me! I have often been reminded during these last few months that my intense pain is not abnormal. It simply mirrored back to me the fact that I am a good guy, a passionate guy, a guy with intense feelings about certain things. A guy who cares! Nothing wrong with that. The absence of pain would have meant one of two things. Either, I don’t have a heart or I may have been “drugging” myself to make it through.

2. Whenever I deny initial emotional pain I will most likely lose parts of myself.

Under the influence of “numbing” experiences (drugs, alcohol, entertainment, sex, distractions, etc) I will slowly lose parts of myself I may never recover ever again or may have to be re-constructed in a long period of time. I have faced pain in the past, and I have “run” away from it. In attempting to “numb” my pain, though, looking back, I see how I betrayed people, lost their trust and hurt many innocent people. Some of them will never trust me again! I have had to learn to live with that! This time I chose to experience the fullness of my pain and let it speak to me! The difference? Weeks of excruciating pain while remaining totally alive. The best spiritual experience I have had in ten over years. Perhaps my entire life. Amazing!

3. When emotional pain occurs one can not succumb to those who are not able to deal with their own pain.

I was very careful not to share my pain with people that would tell me, “Well, let me help you alleviate your pain.” Or, “Come on, Harold, move on.” Or, “Harold, you’ll be ok!.” Or, “Harold, you don’t need this BS, anyway!” Or, “Harold, you are a good guy, you don’t deserve that!” Or, worst yet, “Harold, you are hurting, uh? Well, you did it to yourself. You are “one penny too short and one minute too late. Face it up boy!” (Ouch!)

I kept saying to myself, “I will only call or talk to friends that will allow me to experience my pain fully.” I have those friends, and those are the ones I went to. Friends who let me cry. Friends who were OK with my hurt. Friends who did not help me to run away. Friends who did not assist me in alleviating what I was feeling. Those friends are the ones who know that pain can cleanse the soul! It worked! Healing happens faster when you handle pain the smart way!

4. Excruciating emotional pain led me to God.

Pain served a purpose and it led me to the deepest experience of God I have had in my entire life. My mind is fresh and clean. The fear is gone. God did it for me! And those of you who know me, also know I am not a religious guy at all.

5. The gift of pain changed my perception of many people around.

Suddenly I found myself reconnecting with people I had avoided because their pain was too much for me to handle. Suddenly I discovered in them fellow pilgrims! They understood me! Some wonderful things happened regarding relationships in the last few months!

6. The gift of pain reminded me that the most important thing in life is people and relationships.

No money, no prestige, no reputation could have ever alleviated my pain. No temporary success would have done what pain did. No quick “fix” would have dealt with the real issues. It’s like with our bodies. There is so much Tylenol you can take to calm your headache before you begin to wonder what’s really wrong with your head, right? There is so much running away from people you dislike you can do, before you look at yourself in the mirror and wonder what’s going on deep, deep, inside your soul? How many people are you going to hurt in revenge before you realize you’ve got a problem yourself? How many people are you going to blame for your misfortune in life before you realize no one controls your destiny but yourself? How many times can someone numb himself with money, religion, power, work, success before one realizes one needs people and deep abiding relationships?

The gift of pain…

I chose to celebrate pain without knowing what I was doing.

It did not make me better than anyone else. It just turned the light switch back on in my soul and I saw what I never saw before! That’s it!

Looking back, all I would have had to do to experience “painless hell” (emotional leprosy) would have been to run away, get people who would help me alleviate my pain, get busy with life, ignore God, get busy and keep moving on to the next thing. Like on a treadmill! Even go to therapy to obtain a good doses of “analysis paralysis.” (Very often we avoid pain by analysis) The drumbeat of “painless hell” is move on, move, move on, keep going! Don’t stop to think! For thinking is the beginning of pain.

The gift of pain…

Tears of pain cleansed my soul.

Pain made me alive again.

The gift of pain made me see the stars again.

The gift of pain reconnected me with the people I love the most.

The gift of pain made me see our seductive culture of denial with disgust not wanting to be a part of it while helping others get in touch with their pain.

The gift of pain reminded me how alive I am and how good my heart is!

Today, I thank God for the gift of pain.

I know it will protect me from losing what’s most special to me!

The story of the Bible on how Christ healed leprosy has a new meaning for me now. When Christ healed leprosy in the ancient times he actually healed people from the “hell of painlessness” He gave them back the GIFT OF PAIN! They were able to hurt again! Wooww!

The same is true today!

Pain protects us from self-destruction. Imagine how much better our world would be if we would allow pain to transform us into sensitive, compassionate, loving people. If we would allow pain to resolve issues that hurt us and others.

Instead of running away from pain, embrace it! Pain will direct you to God and to others with whom you will connect in the most meaningful way. Pain is one of the most intense expressions of life!