Physical pain can be bad, bad enough for people to consider ending their lives to escape it. My first thought on physical pain has to do with the birth of our first child, Daniel, in 1979. It was to be natural child birth, no medication, despite the fact he was breech and despite the fact some coworkers “helped” us in the last week by sharing stories of babies who died or had brain damage from the long breech birth of someone they knew. As we waited in the hall at the hospital for the birthing room (a really new idea back in 1979) to be made ready, we found ourselves sitting just outside the labor room being used for the more conventional birth process. The woman inside began screaming at the top of her lungs, “give me something – I can’t take it any more – if you’re not going to give me anything, please just go ahead and kill me.”
The second thought is the more recent root canal I underwent this past Monday. I got lots of Novocain, but twice I felt pain and jerked. The first time the dentist assured me it wasn’t pain, only the vibration. And the second time he assured me it was only the pressure. Well, I do know pain, and this was pain. I told him I would be all right as long as he didn’t ask me: “Is it safe?” He chuckled and said yes he had seen the movie Marathon Man, but had never had a patient say this to him. For those not familiar with the movie, the Nazi dentist repeatedly asks Dustin Hoffman, as he tortures him using his dental skills, “Is it safe?” The dentist assured me I would be fine if I had not been improperly “conditioned,” which I assumed could either be from un satisfactory previous treatments, or by watching bad movies. One thing for sure – no matter what kind of pain, someone telling you that you don’t or shouldn’t feel pain never lessens the pain.
The general picture of pain and its limits can be represented by scales. On the left you have a quantity of pain, and on the right you have the ability to cope with the pain and resources to reduce or remove the pain. When the balance tilts too far to the left, you must look for how to increase coping and reduction of the pain to put the scales in a more balanced position. The Lady of Justice, Justitia, was sometimes portrayed on ancient Roman coins with scales. Frequently it is the goddess Moneta (patron goddess of money and the minting of money) or Aequitas (the personification of equity or fair dealing) who were shown standing, holding scales. But none of them were blindfolded – that was added to representations of Justice in the 15th century. The pictures above show some of these coins.
The principle of the scale, pain on one side, and coping and resources on the other, applies equally to our emotional pain. A couple of people have recently discussed suicide with me, and one man shared that he had been destroyed by a woman who had broken his heart. As I said, I know what pain is – most of us do. The most important thing is that suicide is never the right answer, and there is always hope as long as you are alive. What’s more, what does not kill us makes us stronger – stronger to face future struggles, stronger to increase our coping and resources when needed, and stronger to be willing to share with others who also are dealing with struggles.
Many have felt despair, shame, guilt, depression, rejection, loneliness, loss. At times people feel hopeless, helpless, and worthless, which tips the scales to the right. Some are depending on alcohol or drugs to escape the pain, but feel overwhelmed when they find that the escape is temporary. I shared in Eat, Drink and Be Merry Bertrand Russell’s observation that at times we try to make life more bearable by becoming less alive. He also says that “Drunkenness, for example, is temporary suicide: the happiness that it brings is merely negative, a momentary cessation of unhappiness.” I believe the key is not to look for a more permanent escape, but to find ways to reduce the pain and increase the ability to cope with the pain, even remove it. Often, a professional counselor is crucial to this process. We want to make a positive permanent difference and find real solutions.
There is an excellent web page, suicide…read this first, and it discusses the scales and pain relationship. A suggestion from this web page is to start by considering the statement: Suicide is not chosen; it happens when pain exceeds resources for coping with pain. At that point the person feels there is no other choice. Everyone needs to be vigilant for signs that someone they have a relationship with needs to adjust their pain balance, remove pain, and increase coping. Good and Better Love help us to see and act, Best Love helps find the solutions. The Best Love is God’s Love. This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. (I John 3:16) A personal relationship with Christ provides a source not only for hope and joy in the relationship with Him, but in our relationships with others. More importantly still, a personal relationship with Christ provides the source for us to be able to love, accept, and forgive ourselves. And that is the first step in being able to love, accept, and forgive others.