Chaplain's Corner

Pain – Consolation or Alienation

  • Larry Hirst, Author
  • Retired Chaplain, Bethesda Place

Back in October of 2011 I had the privilege of attending a day long session called Sacred Stories, Shared Storied and Healing. The presenter was a Dr. Arthur Frank, a sociologist from the University of Calgary who has written extensively about the function of stories. It was a workshop for spiritual care givers so the focus was on why it is important for spiritual care givers to listen to and honor the stories that the people we care for have to tell.

Early on in my work as a chaplain, I was far too concerned about the factualness of the stories I heard. I spent too much energy trying to make sure the person got the story right, checking out the story with family members and sometimes trying to help the person rewrite the story. I was naive and foolish.

Being a Baptist, sometimes “truthfulness” is too important. Let me explain. About a year ago I felt an inner compulsion to begin writing the stories of my life. So I sat down at my compute and began just writing down the memories that I had. They were an odd, assortment of unorganized memories of events and people that have left an impression on me. As I wrote, memories that I hadn’t recalled for 40 years or more crept back into my consciousness. It is a work in progress; I have no plans for it but am aware that it may have plans for me.

Shortly into the writing I felt another compulsion, to write an introduction to this odd collection and in that introduction I wrote, “I would like to make it clear at the onset that I do not intent this to be strictly historical, it may not even be completely factual. By that I mean that what I want to write is how I remember my life. I am very aware that how one remembers an event may not and generally is not a strictly accurate account of that event. For memories are informed by more than just the actual event but by one’s emotions, one’s perspectives, one’s beliefs and by how those memories have been rehearsed over the years and the meaning one has given those memories in the process of making sense out of one’s life.”

The stories we tell are not intended to be strict, historical facts about an event. They are the product of many things and those many contributing factors that lead to the formation of a story take it from the realm of history and make it more a reflection of the complexities of the story teller’s soul. If we understand this, then the facts are not as important as what is being reflected from deep within the soul. And this is, after all, one of the tasks of spiritual care:  to look into the soul of another and assist that other to find meaning in the jumbled stories of their life.

Dr. Frank in his lecture made this statement, “Medicine wants to take away pain, spiritual care does not take away pain but changes the quality of the pain from a pain that alienates to a pain that consoles.” Much of our pain alienates us. If we experience significant pain in a relationship it often leaves us alienated from the other person. If we experience pain in some personal endeavor, take for instance an educational endeavor, it often results in our dropping out and becoming alienated from future educational opportunities. One of the endeavors of spiritual care is to seek to bring consolation through the pains of life, to seek to reverse the alienating power of pain.

Let me give you a simple example. Recently in one of the facilities where I work, a gentleman was admitted. In the course of getting to know this man and his family, I learned that the personality of this man had changed radically after a stroke that he had a number of years ago. As I listened to he and his wife tell me stories about their life together, I learned that all his life he had been an amiable fellow, friendly and outgoing, positive, considerate of the needs and desires of those around him and showing considerable concern that his decisions and actions not impact others negatively. Then we got to the painful part of the story. A broken hip and a stroke within months of each other changed their lives forever. No longer independently mobile or able to speak with the same ease as before, he also experienced a dramatic change in his personality. He became somewhat demanding and negative. This change was painful for everyone. It had the power to alienate him from his family and friends.

From time to time as I talked with his wife and daughter, I encouraged them to view their pain differently. Yes it was painful to lose this man in several significant ways. It was painful to see him lose his independent mobility, it was painful to watch him struggle to express himself, it was painful to find themselves in relationship with a man whose personality was so different. All that pain could easily lead to alienation in the relationship. But if they could embrace the fact that this man wasn’t the agent of these changes, but just as much a victim of these dramatic health declines as they were, if they could embrace the personality changing power of a stroke, they could be consoled that this man they loved had not so much changed of his own free will, but he had been changed by things that he had no control over whatsoever.

This small adjustment in how they saw him made it possible for them to be consoled in their pain instead of moving towards alienation. A spiritual perspective sees the powers beyond our control that so often pull the strings of our lives. A spiritual perspective recognizes that the pain is real, that it is hard, that it is unwelcomed, but that it is just as hard and unwelcomed to the party primarily impacted as it is to those who are secondary victims of these life changing events.

Much of the anger has drained from my life as I have thought about my stories. As I have reflected on the players in the drama of my life, as I have considered the challenges they faced and how those challenges impacted my life, I have been able to have compassion on those who have been the source of some of my deepest pain, because I could be consoled that much of what I had wanted to believe was intentional; and deliberate was more than likely their unconscious responses to the pains in their lives.

This doesn’t mean that all the alienation that the pain in my life has created has been healed. But it does allow me to be consoled in the pain understanding that my pain is not so much the result of hardened, careless disregard, but the interpersonal limping of another soul’s attempts to get on with life despite the pain life’s realities has dished out.

You know there is hardly a good story that doesn’t contain pain, struggle and difficulty of some sort. Your life and mine are full of good stories, but many of us have no one to tell our stories to, no one who cares to listen, and no one who can hear the pain and help us find consolation. Many of us are so intent, so determined to get rid of the pain or to ignore the pain, or to numb ourselves from the pain that the healing power of our own stories is missed. My stories have begun to be a source of healing in my life as I have looked beyond my pain to see the pain that other players in my stories have dealt with and how without wanting to have injured me. I have come to recognize that my pain has also caused others pain and although I can not change this, I now appreciate the fact that life isn’t about eliminating pain, but it is about finding in our pain the consolation of knowing that there is understanding and even forgiveness that can reverse the alienating power of the painful events in our life and lead us into a place of consolation and peace.

Chaplain's Corner was written by Bethesda Place now retired chaplain Larry Hirst. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely that of the writer and do not represent the views or opinions of people, institutions or organizations that the writer may have been associated with professionally.