Before plastic surgery became technically sophisticated, a famous film star damaged her lovely face in a terrible car accident. The surgeon explained that the damage could be repaired and her beauty restored but that the operation would have to be carried out (for certain technical reasons) without any anesthetic. She had to choose between excruciating pain and her career on the one hand or no pain and no career on the other. She chose pain.
During the operation the cooperation of the actress was vital. It required remaining perfectly still during moments of extreme suffering. When a scalpel was carefully shaping a rounded curve of skin, a sudden move of her head would have increased the damage. The reconstruction of a beautiful face was accomplished by collaboration between the surgeon and the actress.
It is much the same in married life. The pain we suffer does not produce automatic results. But, later on, it produces peace for those who have been trained by it. Those who’ve not been trained by pain are usually damaged by it.
To be trained by pain means to have adopted a thankful attitude whenever one meets frustration, pain, or even what can sometimes be viewed as tragedy and catastrophe. It may be as simple as feeling abandoned when you mistake your child’s behavior patterns for open rejection. Or you can be hurt by your child’s straying affection, as all sorts of outsiders begin to command more authority, respect, and attention than you think you do. Or, it may be the loss of a loved one.
I have come to appreciate that there are two sides to pain. It has as much potential for character destruction as for character building. The pain that makes robust saints can equally well create embittered, defeated cynics. Everything depends on the sufferer’s response.
The range of its forms and its severity is infinite. My boy just spilled beef stew on the carpet while I was in the middle of the previous sentence! Cars that won’t start or that stall in the middle of an intersection – and a thousand petty annoyances as well as indescribable horrors – are included. All come with a certain purpose. The results depend on the ways we habitually respond.
How best should we then respond to pain?
While pain can separate us from others, we are not meant to grieve alone. There is someone, somewhere, with whom we can share our pain. And while many will always run and share their pain with God, I speak of a fellow human.
Yes, marriage exists, among other things, for the sharing of pain and of pleasure. Pain shared is pain divided. Pleasure shared is pleasure multiplied. Therefore, marriage, where it is a true sharing fellowship, can be a resource of incalculable value.
I suppose there is a sense in which our suffering contributes to the well-being of the fellowship, especially if we have been able to discover the results we can gain in our pain as a couple, as a family unit. We can learn to comfort one another much better. And we can derive amazing growth, togetherness and tenacity as family.
One thing that infuriates the young is the triviality of the issues that parents choose to argue about: hairstyles, taste in music, earrings, clothes. Many stages that teenagers would otherwise rapidly grow through and forget are given a ridiculous level of importance as they become the battleground on which the young feel compelled to show their strength. As a parent, this causes pain!
Meanwhile, having lost all credibility over pointless debates, parents feel hurt and outraged at their inability to discuss with their children the serious issues of sex, drink, faith, and so on, where guidance and help is actually desperately needed. On these big issues teenagers will actually be grateful (though they may never openly admit it to their parents) for firm, reasoned guidelines and clear limits that breed a sense of security in their lives.
I write as one who has tasted the bitterness of despair and found a larger sense of purpose and liberation as a result of stumbling in the darkness. I write as a man who is no longer afraid, ashamed or bothered of sharing my pains, troubles and heartaches with my better-half. Let us join as a fellowship of pain – or, better, a fellowship of people who, through pain, have grasped the reins of a larger, more powerful, and more tender dimension of life.