The pain didn’t let up. Day and night, muscle spasms and stabbing, knife-like sensations coursed through my left shoulder, neck and forearm. I was desperate for pain killers. I’d been taking the highest dosage of narcotics, supplementing them with ibuprofen. I had a limited amount of sleeping pills to aid me during the long hours of the night, but still I found no relief.
I had a frozen shoulder. I’d never heard of it until my doctor said he didn’t want me to get it. (Sounds like an exotic drink or something you might purchase from an ice cream truck.) I did get it and eventually had to have arthroscopic surgery to have it fixed. After three long weeks with no relief and three sessions a week with physical therapists that trained with Hitler, I was miserable. I didn’t want to go anywhere or do anything. My life became a series of doing what I absolutely had to do, trying to rest and do my exercises and then trying to rest, again.
To top things off, my mother fell five days after my surgery and had a hip replacement. It was up to me to oversee her care and rehabilitation. I was at the end of my proverbial rope.
That day found me at my local drug store, searching for a pain-pill change. I noticed a new tech and talked to her. I guessed her to be about nineteen. To my surprise, she was the new pharmacist.
“My daddy has taken this pill since his car accident, and it’s wonderful!” she stated in an unmistakable southern drawl. “There’s no reason for anyone to be in pain in this day and age.”
Her statement took me by surprise. I knew what she meant. She was probably reciting one of her recent professors. But as I drove away, I thought her sweet, but naive.
Physical pain could probably be relieved for the most part, at least in the US. But just like pills, pain takes many shapes and forms. I knew. I’d seen lots of pain in the last six years.
During those years my elderly parents lived with me and my husband along with our two teenagers. I sat through numerous doctors’ visits with my parents as they made decisions that eventually led to both my father’s legs being amputated. I’d watched as they lost of their independence and became totally dependent on the caregivers and me. I knew the pain of finally having to say ‘uncle’ and putting my dad into a nursing home. Then a few weeks later, the pain of transferring my mom to an assisted living that was connected to it.
She didn’t want to go.
When she arrived, my sister and I walked her into a stunning lobby. Quiet music played as a gas fireplace burned, adorned with stately sofas.
We noticed a sign meant for Mom with colorful, floating balloons attached that read, “Welcome Home, Pauline Wert.”
My sister averted her eyes as I watched tears form. I looked away. I was well versed in this sort of pain, and had learned to detach myself in order to exist.
I knew the pain of making mistakes with my children and hurting with them as they made their own mistakes. I knew the pain of death. I’d been with both my father and my mother-in-law as they drew their last breath.
Still, this physical pain shocked me. Years ago, I’d written an article in The St. Petersburg Times about a severe illness that had attacked my mother. I said then that “Pain is the schoolroom of growth.” Well, I wanted to quit. I finally understood that I couldn’t because there are no drop-outs in this school.
I’ve learned from it though. I’m still sorting through it a bit, but thought I’d share what I’ve learned with you. (I’m allowed to do this since I am over 50 and have some fat hanging from my upper arms).
So, pull up your chair and a have a good cup of strong coffee, I’ll take extra cream, and let’s learn together.
First, I’ve learned to have more empathy with people in pain.
As I waited for the doctor to put me under, I thought of how often my father had waited for his surgeries. Knowing that he was going in with a leg and was coming out without one, and all that entailed, must have been horrifying. I remember thinking then that it must be frightening, but later told him to “suck it up.” As that thought passed through my mind, tears flowed. The nurse noticed and thought I was afraid. I wasn’t afraid, I was just feeling some of my daddy’s pain.
I read in a book once that there are two kinds of people. People who walk into a room and say with their presence, actions and speech, “Here I am.” Then there are those who walk into a room and with their presence, actions and speech say, “There you are.” I confess that for half a century, I’ve been a “Here I am” person. But I’m praying to be a “There you are” person. I want to be like that all the time, but especially with people in pain.
That’s how Jesus was. People with all kinds of pain followed Him around, some physical, some emotional, some spiritual. He never turned them away. In fact, while studying the book of Matthew, I was amazed at Christ’s compassion. He not only healed people, but often he touched them physically. Like the blind man in Matthew 9, or the leprous man in Matthew 8.
I’ve also learned that good health is not my right. If anyone deserved good health, Paul did, yet in 2 Corinthians, he states that he suffered shipwrecks, beatings, hunger, thirst, sleeplessness-all for the sake of the gospel. Here I was with a hurt shoulder in a comfortable bed in a controlled environment and I’d lost my joy.
I decided to go to the book of Philippians. I read through the book several times during those sleepless nights and grueling physical therapies. I also picked up a commentary on it titled “Be Joyful” by Warren Wiersbe. I thought of poor Paul, chained to a Roman soldier in a cold, dark, musty jail. Although awaiting execution, and probably suffering with indescribable physical pain, he continued to have immense joy. His joy didn’t come from circumstances or health or others, it stemmed from his grateful delight over his salvation and eternal home with Christ.
If Paul could have abundant joy in those circumstances, then I could have joy in mine.
I also learned that God reaches out to us when we call to him in our weakness. God uses weak vessels. Then He gets all the glory.
One night, there was excruciating pain radiating through my hand. I kept trying to massage it, or move it so the muscle spasms would go away, but they wouldn’t. Finally, in desperation, I retreated to my reading chair and decided to go to God’s Word for encouragement and simply to praise Him. Psalm 134 happened to be my reading for that particular day:
“Behold, bless the LORD, all servants of the LORD,
Who serve by night in the house of the LORD!
Lift up your hands to the sanctuary
And bless the LORD.
May the LORD bless you from Zion,
He who made heaven and earth.”
I knelt, and lifted my painful hands to the LORD of heaven and earth and offered praise and blessing to Him that night.
It’s not about me, it’s not about you–but you already know that, it’s about Him. The God of heaven, met puny little me at 3 AM one October morning while calling out to Him in my weakness. His answer to praise and bless Him made the pain bearable.
Before I could completely heal my shoulder, I had to do exercises and sit in this contraption prescribed by my physical therapist for at least 2-30 minute sessions a day. It was a chair with a hydraulic lever that I pulled with my good arm to stretch my bad arm. I set it up in front of the TV so the stretch could be endured.
It occurs to me that just like that machine, the Lord is constantly stretching us. Molding us into his character. It’s slow and painful, but just like the pain in my shoulder was eventually alleviated by inflicting the pain of therapy and surgery, so God Almighty uses pain in our lives to produce in us the eternal weight of glory.
The young, sweet pharmacist may have been correct about alleviating some pain, but I’m glad that our Lord doesn’t take pain from our lives instead He uses it to conform us to His image. That’s what I want-to be like Him.
How about you?