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.


  1. You are right: gout is one of the most painful conditions humans experience. I suffered an episode of gout in my forearm @ 7 years ago. But I was not as philosophical as you. I saw no purpose in the pain except... suffering pain.

    You made some thoughtful observations about pain. I can't go back in time to experience that episode with your insights. But I can keep those insights in mind when I experienced pain in the future.

    Thank you, Nate. As always, you've set me thinking.


  2. Prednisone helps get rid of the pain of gout. Have you tried it?