A poster I saw this week has been stewing in my mind for the past few days. It said: Pain is inevitable, Suffering is optional. I’ve been playing it against the reality of the week for myself and for a number of my friends and family. Between us we’ve had major invasive surgery, chemotherapy that caused extreme nausea, severe back pain, a beloved grandfather die, minor aches and pains, a marriage painfully end, fleeing for your life because you’ve been put on a hit list because of your faith in God, and those are just the ones I can think of at the moment.
Pain is inevitable. I have no problem with that. It’s the suffering part that puzzles me. The dictionary defines it as “pain that is caused by injury, illness, loss, etc.: physical, mental, or emotional pain.” That sounds pretty inevitable to me as well. I know someone who was hurt so much as a young child that they have the ability to block pain to the point where they seem to step outside of themselves to avoid it, making it appear as if the pain is happening to someone else. That has taken them into some nearly disastrous situations. Pain is given to us as a warning that something is wrong. To ignore it is foolish.
The message the poster was trying to make is that dwelling or wallowing in pain is a choice. It should not become something that defines us.
It reminded me of visit we made to the Wedgewood factory on our second visit to England. As we walked through the section dedicated to showing us how this beautiful pottery is created, we stopped at the place where the intricate white ornamentations are made that decorate their signature blue or grey pieces. A small ball of white clay is placed in a mold and the artisan uses a wooden hammer with a two-and-a-half inch mallet-like head to pound the clay until it fills the mold. Using a pin, the clay is removed so it can be examined. If it conforms perfectly to the mold, it is set aside to dry. If not—if there is a bubble or a place where the clay failed to completely fill the design, it is rolled up into a ball and the whole process is started again.
As we watched the process for several minutes, I found myself praying, “God, as pain comes into my life and I am pounded down, let me come up looking beautiful, not resisting the process so it has to happen all over again before I come out of the mold looking like Jesus.” I was reminded how my grandfather often called pain or trouble God’s hammer of love, something that shaped us into strong, loving people.
I collect tea cups and one of my favorite ones was a gift from my daughter and son-in-law that they brought home after a summer of living in Romania. They stopped at a pottery store on an excursion to Bucharest and after explaining to the owner that they wanted a special cup and saucer for their mother, he invited them into the back of the store. There he served them tea as he brought out his special cups to show them. They selected a cup he had made by kneading the clay, pounding it into shape, molding it just the way he wanted. He then fired it in a kiln, painted it with bright blue flowers, and fired it again.
I treasure that cup and saucer, even though I continued the pain the clay went through by dropping the cup on the floor and breaking it into a dozen pieces. (I think it’s the only time I cried when I broke something I owned.) I lovingly collected the pieces and glued them back together. It will never hold tea again but it looks beautiful on my shelf. It also serves as a reminded to me that brokenness is not fatal. The purpose of that cup has changed, but it has not been made useless.
As I look at my friends and family I see strength growing in them through the struggles they are going through. Sometimes it takes testing to show ourselves that we are stronger than we think we are, that we do have the capacity to move ahead. I am so proud of them for not wallowing in pain nor letting it steal their joy of living. I would change the poster to read, “Pain is inevitable, Suffering happens, But growth and joy are possible. Choose well.”