Embrace the day despite the pain

Published 3:55 pm Friday, January 5, 2024

Pain is an inescapable reality for humanity. It’s been with us since birth, from that first moment a baby realizes it no longer dwells in the safety of her mother.  It’s a part of childhood and adolescence, when physical pain teaches us lessons about how best to carry our body, and emotional pain teaches us that life can be beautifully heartbreaking, and sometimes the only thing we must do is endure the suffering. The same principles apply in adulthood, although the painful lessons of our older years are often more devastating and life-altering.

Like many of you, I begin every day in pain. My back has decided it’s time for another trip under the knife, and there isn’t much I can do about it other than accept it. I must accept the reality of my pain in order to live life as joyfully as possible. After all, refusing to accept my pain doesn’t take it away. The pain would still be there, but I would be caught in a vicious cycle of self-pity and despair.

Admittedly, it’s hard to see past our pain when it’s so pronounced and aggravating. My God, I know how hard it can be. But see past it we must if we are to arrive at a place in life where our pain doesn’t define us. You know what I’m talking about, those of you who are chronic sufferers like me, be it physical or emotional. You know exactly how difficult it is to put our feet on the floor, stand tall, and decide to face the day’s challenges head-on. It’s like walking up to a bridge that crosses a marsh only to find that the bridge is out. We want to walk around the mud, the muck, and the danger of the marsh. But there is no way around it. We must walk through the mud to get to the other side, to find our way through the marsh no matter how unpleasant it is.

That’s life in a nutshell. There is no going around our pain. There is no avoiding all the uncomfortable and destabilizing forces in life. There is no escape. And here, you might find yourself saying, “This is depressing!” Listen, I get it. I really do. I’ve been a pastor long enough to know that hard truths like these aren’t always the easiest pills to swallow. But once we move past that initial depression and despair, something else comes over us: the courage to be alive, the courage to be ourselves, the courage to be someone who refuses to be defined by all the pain and ugliness of ourselves and the world. The true test of one’s strength lies not in their ability to resist feeling pain, but rather in their ability to not let that pain define them.

Being a pastor for so long has also allowed me to see this in action, not just in my own life, but in the lives I serve. There are folks who show up to church and spend all day cleaning, polishing, and preparing while silently suffering from acute stage-4 cancer. There are folks who are caught up in the throws of depression but nevertheless show up on Sunday and read aloud the Scriptures as if they were a fresh word from God. I am constantly in awe of those whose pain is more pronounced than my own yet still live with an overflowing sense of joy and gratitude.

Here’s the really awesome thing, though. If you find yourself reading this article, then you are one of those who hasn’t let your pain or despair keep you from waking up and embracing the day. The worst thing that ever happened to you, the worst thing you’ve experienced, didn’t crush you. You are still alive. You are still here. You still have something to give to the world, which means that you are more than your pain. May this new year be full of vibrancy and life, and may you be filled with an indomitable spirit that refuses to be defined by your pain.

Chris Adams is the Rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Washington