The Problem of Pain

It’s October again.

I know, I know–a truly revolutionary statement. October carries with it it’s own dignified sense of autumn, distinct from September’s gentle turning and a far cry from the bite of November’s march into winter. October is falling leaves and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock; it’s bundle-up weather and early evenings, pots of cinnamon tea and hand-knit socks. It’s also become my month of endings, of death.

I think about death a lot.

There is a point in every child’s life where they come up against the truth of mortality: perhaps they lose a family member, or they see an animal die. It’s formative, necessary even, to the development and understanding of a person as they age– that knowledge that everything is temporary. But I cannot remember a time in my life where I wasn’t acutely aware of death. Even before I tangibly encountered it, I knew what it was– who she was. I’ve never feared death; rather, I’ve always found myself somewhat fascinated by it, evident in everything from my reading and writing preferences to the way I’m forever identifying with fictional personifications of it, either male or female (my favourite to date have been Neil Gaiman’s Death from Sandman and a friend’s interpretation in a recent theatrical production of Everyman, in case you were wondering). This preoccupation with the subject has over the years become a close acquaintance with the lady herself, which brings me back to October, and into the subject of pain.

Pain reminds me somewhat of a child, not entirely without sympathy: he remains to sit with those left behind once Death has moved on. You will find him there, by the coffin, the closed door, the empty closet, his grey dog Grief lying unleashed and close at his heels. October, death, and pain have come hand-in-hand this year more than ever, and I’ve spent a lot of time searching for a way to express it all in words. Not a day into the month and I found myself finally ending a long, tumultuous, complicated, abusive relationship with my father. The day after that, a relationship was ended with me.

In his book The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis discusses the fact that there is no “unimaginable sum of human misery,” saying that “there is no such thing as a sum of suffering, for no one suffers it. When we have reached the maximum that a single person can suffer, we have, no doubt, reached something very horrible, but we have reached all the suffering there ever can be in the universe.”

Why then do I feel like I’m bearing the pain of three people?

My poor relationship with my father only ever complicated and warped my image of and relationships with men, while also tearing a sizeable hole in my relationship with a God who’s chief attribute of love is most often described in paternal terms. The decision and ability to finally relinquish the endless and impossible struggle of sufficiency enough for my father has opened a door to finally move on past all the cruel words cluttering my mind in his voice. The decision wasn’t easy and it certainly wasn’t quick: it took years to reach and several sleepless nights to choose. To be broken up with unexpectedly barely a day later took what was already fractured and shattered it completely.

I’m discovering that over the past few months I’ve somehow forgotten how to be alone. The independence so hard-wired into my system, strengthened by months spent navigating the streets of New York City on after high school, then sharpened as I moved halfway across the country for school seems a lifetime away, so easily obliterated by a single summer as I find myself in the position of relearning how to operate independently, how to pass my time on my own, how to savour solitude once more. I never used to notice an absence, but now absence is all I feel. I wake up every morning to begin regathering all the fragments once more, pieces to a puzzle that I can’t seem to assemble.

Lewis later goes on to write “Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also more hard to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say “My tooth is aching” than to say “My heart is broken.”

In the mean time, life (like time) continues to march ever-steadily forward. Lewis wrote his treatise on pain in his effort to explain the coexistence of a purportedly loving God in a world so riddled by injustice and grief. This is a quandary I’m spending more and more time contemplating these days. Being raised in an environment where asking God “why” was viewed as defiance and “counting it all joy” the only right response has caused me to balk countless times in my spiritual life, opting to muddle through things on my own terms rather than carry them to a loving father God who’s purposes and ways are too terrible in their goodness and mystery for me to comprehend. But if there’s one thing I’m learning this month- this year, this lifetime- it’s that it is sometimes necessary for uplifted hands to turn to fists, if only for a little while, with the knowledge that there is grace enough even for this.

I know I’m not alone in this. Part of the struggle has been grappling with these things while coming alongside others around me who are fighting to carry their own burdens as well. We none of us can do it alone.

So in the midst- or rather at the end- of this heavy October, despite the unanswered questions and the gaping holes, despite the darkness, and most certainly despite the pain, I’m permitting myself the bruises and blood that comes from being so repeatedly driven to my knees, hoping that better and more glorious things will come of it the more I do.

In summation (and as only Lewis could put it): “The great thing to remember is that though our feelings come and go, God’s love for us does not.”

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