Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Purpose of Pain

Last night was probably the worst night of my life. Well, maybe not the worst night, just the most painful. And loneliest. And most hopeless. But I promise to end this post on a positive note.

I've written before about three kinds of pain and how they are the worst kinds of pain I'm aware of:
  • Financial problems and the stress that comes from not being able to pay your bills or make a good living and provide for others.
  • Heartache from loving someone you can't have or loving someone who doesn't love you. This includes the pain that comes from losing someone you love.
  • Physical pain that comes from medical conditions or accidents.
After last night, I'm convinced that the last bullet point is the heaviest kind of pain out there. One can recover from financial ruin. The heart can heal and love again. But intense, prolonged physical pain is the absolute worst.

Why do we feel pain? What purpose does it serve? Can pain be avoided or is it a necessity as part of our experience as human beings? Allow me to share my experience from last night and wrap it up with some thoughts and musings I've had since then.

For those of you who don't know, I have gout. One is typically predisposed genetically to suffer from this "rich man's disease". My dad had it, his mother had it, two of my brothers have it, even a young nephew of mine has it. Many who aren't informed will dismiss gout as a result of a bad diet. But it's not that simple. While I have to watch what I eat and avoid certain kinds of foods, it's not just limited to diet. There are many overweight people who will never experience gout because they are not genetically predisposed to it.

Gout occurs when there is an excessive amount of uric acid in the bloodstream. Everyone has uric acid in their bloodstreams, but our kidneys help regulate these levels. My kidneys don't do a great job at that and so when an excessive amount of uric acid occurs, they start to crystallize in the joints. This is what causes the most excruciating pain I've ever known.

Typically, this flare up occurs in the joint or knuckle of the big toe, usually on my left foot. Sometimes, it's very mild and just causes me to limp for a day or two. Other times, it's debilitating and causes me to be confined to my bed or couch. The slightest movement or pressure on the toe can cause a shooting pain on top of the constant throbbing and burning that occurs during a flare up. I take a daily med to help regulate my uric acid levels, but it's not a guarantee that I'll never have a flare up again.

Just the other day, I was telling a friend that it had been several months since my last attack. I guess I forgot to knock on wood because I've been feeling some soreness in my ankle over the past few days. It continued to get worse and I identified the intense burning, redness and throbbing as gout. It just didn't crystallize in my big toe this time. The flare up decided to make a home in the exact center of my ankle making it impossible to turn my foot in any direction without wincing in pain.

My brother Neil has helped me through several of these flare ups over the years. I probably average 2-3 flare ups a year and they began when I was 24. Neil got me all situated for bedtime and I was good to go. He went upstairs to go to bed and this is when my hell began. I had noticed an ease of pain in the hours leading up to bedtime, but by the time I was in bed for even just an hour, I felt pain unlike anything I'd ever experienced before. Can you tell which ankle? Hint: It's the cankled ankle.

It was relentless, constant, unforgiving. I changed my position at least 100 times during the night in an attempt to feel the slightest ease of pain. I prayed, hour by hour, pleading with the Lord to take it away or to at least make it manageable. That ease of burden didn't come. I was drinking lots of water, had my foot elevated, ice packs and Lortab at the ready, and still...I was sentenced to 10-hour period of unimaginable pain. My heart pounded through much of this ordeal and at times, I wondered if I was going to pass out. I had Neil come downstairs once or twice to help me with this or that, but there wasn't much he could do about the pain. I probably should've just gone to the hospital. I guess I just know from past experience that the pain is intense for a bit and then it eases. I kept waiting for that pain to ease, hoping and waiting.

It's a day later and I am still in quite a bit of pain, but it's nothing like I experienced on hell night. Neil is still graciously helping me with what I need. I honestly don't know what I would've done had he not been here to assist. It made me think of others who are called to experience this level of pain and don't have someone to rely on. It made me question why God allows His children to suffer to this degree. What is to be gained? How will I become a better person for having gone through what happened last night?

I've had some time to think about it and, while I've been under the influence of painkillers, I wanted to share a thought or two about the purpose of pain:

  • Because of my religious background, my thoughts turned to the Savior's suffering in Gethsemane right away. In His darkest hour, even He wondered if He'd been forsaken. Could my experience of a sleepless night, writhing in pain, make me that much more appreciative of what Jesus suffered? Did I need some kind of reminder so that I could relate or have more gratitude?
  • I think experiencing pain sets us up to appreciate pleasure more readily. The pleasing things of life have purpose and when we can contrast pain with pleasure, we can recognize the sweet from the bitter much more readily.
  • We are more empathetic with others who are going through something painful when we experience pain. It doesn't necessarily have to be physical, but I'll tell you what: My heart goes out to anyone who struggles with chronic pain on a regular basis. These gout attacks kick my butt, but they are limited to a few times a year. I can't imagine the soul-crushing weight of experiencing this level of physical pain on a daily basis.
  • Physical pain puts other kinds of pain in perspective. For instance, my heart has been very heavy over the Christmas holiday. For the most part, I stayed home and kept things very low-key because of the sadness I've been feeling. This sadness is a matter of the heart, a classic case of unrequited love. But as low as that has made me feel, it didn't begin to compare with hell night. Once I started to feel an ease to my physical pain, I decided that I could more readily handle the emotional pain of loving someone I can't have.
  • Pain reminds us how fragile we are and how fleeting this life is. We aren't invincible. At some point, this will all end simply because our bodies (in their present form) were not made to live forever. Through muffled sobs during my loneliest of hours during this attack, I was reminded that my time here is limited. I don't feel fear, I just feel a renewed sense of hope and gratitude that I still have time to accomplish what I'd like to do. Could these physical setbacks just serve as a reminder to spend our time wisely? Then again, I know people who are very ill who have done nothing but spend their time doing good things.
  • Will I more willingly appreciate the every day ordinary-ness of life by going through hell night? I've griped to a few friends in recent weeks about the full load I've taken on as a full-time student with a full-time job. In the darkest period of my night, I began thinking how grateful I'd be to be in class or to be working as long as I didn't have to feel the pain anymore.
  • I don't believe in a God that punishes us by inflicting pain. I do, however, believe that some of the pain we experience in life is a direct result of decisions we make. So, when it comes to my hell night, I'm a little mixed. Sure, I could've eaten better and been more diligent about taking my meds. Perhaps I could've avoided this latest attack. But sometimes, despite our best efforts to be safe or preventative, isn't pain inevitable? And if pain IS inevitable, why? What do we gain from it? Why must we experience it?
  • I believe that one day, we'll know why all the pain we experience in life is necessary. Sure, there are the canned answers we've been told. And I really do believe that pain allows us to appreciate the good things in life, and pain allows us to become humble and rely on a greater power, and pain does this and that. But yeah, I don't understand why last night was necessary. Why was I forsaken for that 10-hour period? Where was the relief? What was I supposed to learn? I've got some ideas and I've presented some of them here. But I look forward to the day when it all makes more sense.
I see so many people I love going through pain. Losing a child or parent, having 4 and 5 miscarriages, struggling to feed kids and pay the mortgage, intense loneliness and feelings of rejection and isolation, not getting what one wants or needs from a lover or spouse, body image issues or other forms of self-loathing, abusive relationships, pressure to fit in and do what others expect, doing what you want to do rather than what you're expected to do, cancer, heart attacks, diabetes, and on and on. While I will never fully understand all of the reasons we are called to suffer and experience pain, I know that I am just a little more prepared to be compassionate to others by going through what I've gone through.

Last night may have been the worst night of my life, but it served a purpose. I'm grateful that in another day or two, I'll be able to walk again. And more importantly, when I see others go through something that causes them intense pain, my heart is already conditioned to respond accordingly. I will show up in ways that others may not be able to as a result of having gone through intense pain. I will be ready to help. In that way alone, my pain has helped me become more like the Savior. To me, it's a price I'm willing to pay.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

A Love Letter to My Someday Someone

Dear Beloved,

The other day, I was listening to Bjork and in one of my favorite songs, she sings: "I miss you, but I haven't met you yet." In response to that lyric, one might ask: "How can you miss someone you've never met?" Somehow, I understand the lyrics perfectly. That sentiment has been on my mind for a few days now.

In that spirit, I'm putting pen to paper to express some thoughts that will ultimately lead me to you. So here I am, in present day, looking ahead to a time when you will be mine and I will be yours. I reflect over a lifetime of decisions, triumphs, setbacks, circumstances, and emotions that inform my current path. Without meeting you, without knowing you, and without loving you, I turn to you now. I long for you. I wait for you. Patiently. Willingly. Lovingly.

I become excited when I play in my mind the various ways in which our worlds might collide. Will we know right away through an obvious crash of coincidence? Or will our story begin with a slow burn and ignite to wildfire over a longer period of time? Either way, I remain open and ready. I feel calm and confident that the timing of "us" will be just right.

You know, I've received untold amounts of unsolicited criticism and direction over the years about how and when I should approach my search for you. Even though I found a good chunk of this input to be trite, useless and even condescending at times, I can recognize that most of it was given in a spirit of love and concern. People just want me to be happy. Sure, I wish they would walk in my shoes before doling out the advice. "It will happen when you least expect it," they say. "Don't force it, don't try so hard." Now why didn't I think of that? Actually, I did think of that and I tried that approach.

"Nate, you can't rely on someone else to be complete. You have to be fulfilled and complete as a person before you find love." I've heard that one too many times, and yet, it's often given by people I'd label as co-dependent or unfulfilled in life. I know a lot of people who base their entire happiness on whether they have someone to love or not. Actually, I agree with the mindset that we can't rely on someone else to be happy and we can't expect our own 60% to be added to someone else's 40% to equal 100%. In general, it's well-intentional advice. But sometimes, I want to gouge my eyes out when someone invites me to give love more time. I've taken time. Too much time. I'm a complete person. I've had longer to reach my 100% than most. I'm ready for love. I'm deserving of love. There aren't any other boxes I need to check to be worthy of love. I'm ready for YOU.

I can't blame people for taking an interest. After all, my story is a little different. I mean, I didn't even begin dating until I was 36 years old. Here I am three years later, single as ever. I'm sure some have wondered why I haven't managed to couple up within this time frame. I've felt a fair amount of sadness about it myself. However, I've come to see that this three-year period wasn't wasted. It served as preparation for being able to love you more readily and more effectively.

At present, I've been in love exactly three times in my life. I was in my early twenties the first time, but I didn't allow myself to date or pursue love back then. Besides, he was straight and uninterested, but damn if I didn't become enamored with him. I'd had crushes before that time and I've had a few since, but this was something more. We became very close and spent a lot of time together. I was on a high whenever he was around. Without him loving me back, I would've done anything for him. His happiness mattered more than my own. Well, he got married and moved on with his life and we only maintain contact if I make the effort. 
The two other times I've been in love have been within the last three years. Both men were unavailable, and I knew this upon meeting them. They were taken, what could I do? But I suffer from a heart condition that causes me to put emotion first and rationale second.

I refer to the first man in this recent pair as my "transition guy". Getting to know him, seeing myself in him, being able to relate so deeply, developing a physical attraction to him, desiring to get to know him better, wanting him to love me. It was the first time in my life that I allowed myself to love another man without feeling like I would burn in hell as a result. It took me nearly two years to let him go and to get over the fact that we couldn't be together. You see, I think a lot of teenagers experience something similar. "Young love" they call it, but I was experiencing this phenomenon in my mid-30's. A lot of it was about my specific feelings for this guy. And, to be honest, a lot of it was that it felt so good to finally let go and be open to love. He and I remain great friends, but I will always regard him as my "transition guy" -  the man who opened my heart to the possibilities of what love could be. I was capable of giving love in several ways before meeting him, but he helped me learn that I could receive love and not apologize for it. I wasn't sure I'd ever get over how I felt about this guy. That is, until...

Another guy entered my life in a way that opened me up even more. We'll call him "Mr. Intensity". What started out as intense physical attraction grew into intense feelings of love. But, as I stated, he was in a relationship with someone else. I come across attractive men all the time and don't necessarily feel anything. I appreciate their physical beauty and move on with my day. That's how things started here. And then I got to know the son of a gun. He let me in, I let him in. We related on several topics. We enjoyed deep conversations. Not only that, he admitted to finding me attractive, too! What a new concept: Having feelings for someone who actually could return some of my feelings. I'm not saying he felt the same feelings for me, and whatever level of attraction he felt toward me certainly didn't development into anything nearly as deep as what I was feeling. But this man opened me up and made me feel beautiful, desirable, intelligent, witty, talented, I'd never felt so deeply for another person in my life.

Well...heartbreak followed. It was my own damn fault. I knew he wasn't available, and I allowed myself to feel some pretty intense emotions knowing that nothing would come to fruition. The one thing that gives me solace in letting him go is that, at some point, you will come along. If I was able to let go of "transition guy" and develop such intense feelings for "Mr. Intensity", I know I can let go again. My heart got broken twice. Really bad. It was my own doing. But after not allowing myself to date until I was 36, I might have done some over-correcting in my approach to friendships and romance. I will spend a lot of time repairing the damage that was done by waiting for so long to date and be open to love. Sure, I wish my "transition guy" and "Mr. Intensity" could have been in more of a position to love me and return my feelings. But they didn't do anything wrong. They actually prepared me to receive you. When your heart is broken more than once, it creates new openings where love can enter in new and unexpected ways.

So now, I turn my thoughts to you. My lover. My partner. My equal. There are things I want to express now, at present, without having the slightest notion of who you are or when we'll meet. There is power in voicing what you want and putting it out there. Perhaps I'll let you read this letter 6-12 months into our relationship. It will be powerful to look back at what I've presented here and see if it supports our journey or not. I have every belief that it will.

I will be with you because of how you treat others. We won't be perfect, but you and I will share a common concern for the downtrodden, the weary, the underdogs, the disenfranchised, the forgotten, the minority, and the marginalized. We will be united in this level of awareness because of what we experienced individually before we met and what we will continue to experience as a couple. Because we know what it's like to be labeled as "faggots", "apostates", and "menaces to society", we will actively look for ways to contribute to society in a way that is true to who we've become. Sure, you'll treat your mother and siblings and close friends well. But that's easy. What will draw me to you is the way you treat a server at a restaurant, the stranger standing in front of you at the grocery store checkout, and the driver who just cut you off in traffic. Chances are, if you treat others well, you'll treat me like I expect to be treated.

Let's talk about how I'm going to treat you for a second:

  • You'll be reminded of your worth on a regular basis.
  • You will always know that you matter more to me than anyone or anything else.
  • Gift-giving won't just be something we do on holidays, birthdays and special occasions.
  • At the end of each day, you'll come home to someone who is ready to listen.
  • As a lover, you'll know by my touch how eager I am to please you.
  • As a friend, you can totally trust me with your fears and insecurities. Vulnerability will be seen as a strength, not a weakness.
  • As a partner, I'll know when to be insistent and get my way and when to acquiesce and admit that your way is better.
  • I'll take great pride in taking you to family parties, a night out with friends and work gigs. I want to have you on my arm, letting everyone see how lucky I am to be with you.
  • I'll try to step out of my comfort zone and try new things that interest you.
  • I won't argue with you in front of other people. I'm sure we'll disagree at times, but I'll use discretion on things that concern only us.
  • When people ask me about you, my response will begin with a smile. I'll delight in talking about you.
  • You won't ever have to question my level of attraction or desire for you. I'll make sure you feel sexy.
  • Spiritually, we won't agree on everything. But there are a few things that we must be on the same page about. I'm anxious to explore those possibilities with you.

Now, one may read this list and think, "That's all sweet and good, but it's not realistic." But I refuse to settle for anything less. I don't require perfection, I'm far from it. I'm just willing to put in the work. "But Nate, you can't stay in the honeymoon phase forever." Bullshit! Yes you can, and I have every intention of maintaining this level of attraction, passion, meaning and purpose into my relationship with you. I know what it is to go without it for so long and I'm not willing to be deprived any further. You and I will be together because this level of love is the most important priority in our lives.

In reflection, I hate that I went so long without love. I have so much to give and I'm finally at a point to receive it fully. I'm not going to spend a lot of time being sad anymore, however. I can look at the experiences (and the men) from my past with appreciation, knowing that they've all prepared me for you. You will be the lucky recipient of a lifetime of love: no limitations or conditions, no longer pent up and restrained, fully accessible and unleashed. And I will require that of you because I'm worthy of it. I demand it because I'm prepared to give it. You will have to step up to the plate and put in the work with me. You and I will be together because you get that and you delight in that.

I'll close this letter with a reminder of that Bjork lyric: "I miss you, but I haven't met you yet." The possibility that exists within this statement gives me tremendous hope of what's to come. I may "miss" not having that currently, not having you currently, but that will change once you're by my side. I'll just continue preparing myself for you, for "us". And I trust that, at present, you're doing the same.

Until then, my sweet.