Tuesday, January 24, 2012

the joy of the pain

I’ve thought a lot about what my next post should be – especially following the last entry (excluding the one from Kai).

I knew the last post was incredibly honest, and I anticipated the responses I received. Thank you for your encouragement, empathy, and sympathy. And thank you to those of you who challenged me to a new perspective, to increased grace with others, and to humility. I am learning.

I’ve had quite a few conversations over the past week and a half – and as I have told people where my soul finds itself, I have received a common response. To varying effects, people are sorry I am ‘going through’ such a hard time, and know ‘it will pass’ or ‘it’s a part of the process’. While I agree with this, I have begun to concretely think about hardship and pain in another way.

There is a trend in humanity, but largely in western society, to avoid pain. When pain isn’t avoidable, the trend is to immediately begin anticipating its removal or end. Even, possibly especially, among the Church there is a belief that the verse ‘it came to pass’ applies to everything. And while individual causes of pain or difficulty come and go, pain and difficulty themselves are not so transient. Or maybe too transient – they manage to be everywhere all the time. 

There also seems to be a thought among western society, and again largely among the church, that blessings and physical comforts are the same thing. While it may not be discussed as blatantly as it used to be– the Prosperity Gospel is still rampantly supported & the request for the removal of pain is a common prayer.

As I have grown up, I have interacted with a countless number of ‘privileged’ individuals who have been exposed in some direct manner to any one of the billions of the human race who are poor, or who face some insurmountable external challenge. And always, the ‘privileged’ individual (whether 16 or 60) walks away with this statement– “I just can’t believe how much joy they have even though they…(fill in the blank with whatever terrible thing you can think of).” 

This statement is meant to illicit the following response :“wow, I am so ungrateful. I should really change my attitude.” And maybe it does elicit this response – but only for a fleeting moment. When we assume acknowledging our external circumstances will result in an increase or decrease in joy – we minimize our own potential – and we completely miss what joy is meant to be. Joy is not a byproduct of acknowledging our external circumstances.

And those who are joyful in the midst of difficulty are not joyful in spite of the pain – I think they are joyful because they recognize it is possible to simultaneously be triumphant and crushed. It is possible to live & die with each breath, and it is possible to be, as a children’s book so simply put – happy and sad at the same time.

What I’m really trying to say is this – pain does not need to be wished away. Our prayers are foolish if they are uttered only as a request for any pain to be immediately removed. Jesus himself rarely asked for the removal of pain.

Do I wish I wasn’t having such a hard time with this transition? I think so. Do I wish my expectations, and my attitude, weren’t in the middle of such a brutal re-organizing? Yes. Do I wish I wasn’t crying as much as I am? Definitely. But do I wish my pain away?


Instead, I choose to allow my pain to exist as an intrinsic part of me – the cause of the pain may change, but I am fairly confident there will be something causing me pain for the rest of my life. And I would rather not spend the rest of my life wishing pain away. I choose to embrace joy while in the presence of my acknowledged pain.

Any expression of joy is not a denial of pain. It is merely an expression of joy. As Anne Frank said ‘think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy’. She was not denying her pain, she was expressing her joy – there is beauty everywhere. And everywhere there is a need for strength.

Kenya is on a heightened terror alert lately – several warnings have come out over the past month reminding us this is a volatile world, and our physical safety is not a guarantee. While we exercise caution, we do not live in fear or with timidity – we fight terror by continuing on with our daily lives. We fight fear by going to the grocery store, to the cinema, to church. We cheer at a football match, and meet our friends for social events not because we are ignorant or brash, but because though tragedy lurks around the corner, it is still around the corner and we are in the sun.

And if we continue to live, and to embrace the joy & beauty available in each day, tragedy’s stronghold of fear will eventually be beaten.

I cry often, I’ve told you that. But I also laugh often. I see my children, truly see them, not with my eyes but with my soul & heart, and take in their exquisite perfection, several times a day. I love my husband for a new reason every day – he is a good man. I live in a beautiful country just hitting its adolescence and transforming into something great. I have immense joy in my life.

And it is not because of an absence of pain in my life, nor in spite of it. In essence, the only way my joy is related to my pain is that they contrast each other and allow me to truly see. To truly see the pain. To truly see the joy. And to equally absorb both.

A life lived graciously is one lived with the ability to simultaneously, and without tumultuous conflict or tension, embrace both joy and pain. The smile of a person in need (whether physical, spiritual, or emotional need) is not beautiful because the person is only embracing their joy – it is because they choose to embrace joy while embraced by pain – not to remove the pain but to acknowledge the joy. This is a triumph of the human spirit.


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