Your Pain Comes with Possibilities

It seemed like a good idea at the time. They would borrow the camping gear collecting dust in the garage, and they would head to the mountains to enjoy a night under the stars. Two college buddies enjoying the great outdoors.

Trevor, the young man who would later become my husband, grew up in Colorado. His dad loved the outdoors, and the family had a collection of camping equipment they would use from time to time on getaways in the mountains. His friend Jim, who grew up in Chicago, was visiting during summer break. A camping trip to the mountains was a must-do.

The day was warm, but the alpine air held a hint of the chill to come, when nighttime temperatures might dip below freezing. So the two young men wisely planned to set up their campsite first thing. They found a campground in the forest and pulled out the dusty supplies they had packed.

That’s when the problem unfolded. Literally.

The heavy canvas-and-wood tent Trevor had found, carefully folded and stored in the garage at home, was older than the hills and apparently manufactured by some long-gone generation that had failed to pass along its wisdom and ways of thinking. He had no idea how to transform it from an unwieldy pile of fabric and sticks into a passable shelter for the night. And despite Jim’s best efforts to help, he couldn’t solve the puzzle either.

With no better alternative, they bravely tackled the challenge and wrestled the materials into a tent-like shape that would never stand on its own. They tried another approach, producing something that looked more like a boat. They tried every configuration they could envision, and nothing worked. They were still staring at an awkward and stubborn pile of canvas and poles.

Just when these two unhappy campers were thinking they might have to simply crawl under the fabric for the night, help arrived in the form of a middle-aged couple who had been watching the show from another campsite. “You fellas look as if you could use some help,” they said. And incredibly, they knew what to do. Just to be nice, they let the boys help a little as they quickly and efficiently brought order from chaos and fashioned the mass of materials into an actual tent. It was old, it had a bit of a funny smell, it wasn’t very breathable, but it was sturdy. And it was shelter.

Profoundly grateful, Trevor and Jim thanked their rescuers, who seemed to want to linger and chat. So they talked for several minutes, with the older couple asking a lot of friendly questions. They asked if the guys needed anything else, if there were any other ways they could help. And they invited Trevor and Jim to come to their campsite later for a home-cooked dinner. Exhausted and famished from their labors, they accepted.

After the couple left, Jim commented on how genuinely nice they seemed, and how generous they were. Trevor, highly intuitive and destined for a career in psychology, made a guess: “I’ll bet they had a son who died young.”

And over dinner, sitting around the fire and eating from bowls of stew, they discovered he was right. The couple shared their story of agonizing loss–their son had been about their same age when he died.

This mother and father had been heartbroken. They had lost a child–one of the most tragic forms of suffering. Yet they had not allowed their pain to close their hearts. Instead, they had let it make them hospitable, generous, and helpful.

In the wake of pain, you and I have a choice. We can let our pain fool us into believing we are the only ones who have suffered. We can use our pain as an excuse to stop doing hard things. We can refuse to deal with it, covering it over with smiles or things that make us feel good or lies we tell ourselves. Or we can let it soften us and make us more open to others. We can let it make us more aware of what others need from us–and decide to respond in offering what we can.

Pain can take a lot from us–from happiness to energy to focus and even portions of our personalities. But pain does not take away our freedom of choice. Perhaps while we’re suffering, or perhaps long afterward, we get to choose how we will respond to our experiences.

This is as true for the pain of mental illness as it is for anything else. I write and speak a lot about how individuals and organizations–notably churches–can do more to support and promote healing for people with mental illness and their loved ones. But we who have been affected by this kind of pain have our own choices to make. We can hide, or we can be open with our stories for the sake of other people who need to know they’re not alone. We can choose to let anger rule our interactions with other people and with God, or we can practice forgiveness and faith and absorb this pain into a new sense of purpose. We can embrace victimhood, believing the lie that survival produces weakness rather than strength and pulling others into the mire of self-pity. Or we can tap into the toughness that endurance has put at our fingertips, and we can step into our power to heal, to tell the truth, and to engage in life with the fullness of who we are.

What has pain produced in you? What will you do with it?

© 2017 Amy Simpson.