Since I underwent spinal surgery 12 years ago, I have had to face daily pain, but, through exercise and pain management, I have been able to manage its intensity. Eight weeks ago, though, only a day after I finished a 135-mile pilgrimage, I felt a level of pain I had not experienced in a decade. In the following few weeks, the pain got increasingly worse and I have had to endure numerous medical appointments and scans. Alongside the physical pain, there has also been the accompanying mental angst. These worries about the future have torn me away from the present and are invariably worse in the dead of night, when I’ve had no distractions to keep negative thoughts polluting my mind.
We live in a society that attempts, as best it can, to avoid pain and suffering. Sometimes, though, the storms of life are inescapable. Last week, someone visited me as I lay on my sofa. “You need to face your pain like the great Bear Hunt”, they said, rather cryptically. It was only when my four-year-old son chose “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” as his bedtime story a few nights later that I understood something of what she meant. In this classic children’s book, we join a family as they search for a bear by facing various challenging terrains – forest, mud, long grass, and snow. With each different environment, we are told that “We can’t go over it; We can’t go under it; Oh no, we have to go through it!”
Sometimes we have to face the reality that our times of pain, hurt, affliction, or grief are unavoidable. At those times, we have to “gird up our loins”, as the Bible puts it (Job 40:7; 1 Peter 1:13), and face the misery of suffering head on. At those times, we cannot be like rugby players, skilfully sidestepping opponents. Instead, we are forced to be like American football players, confronting opposite numbers head-on by crashing into them. Each of us will face, in the words of St Paul, a “thorn in our flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7), and sometimes there is no other path other than to “take up our cross”, as Jesus told his disciples (Luke 9:23).
On my long pilgrimage which followed the coastline of North Wales, I spent many hours gazing out at the Irish Sea as I rested with my lunch or my trusty flask of tea. During those three weeks of walking, I noticed how the sea was brimming with life and activity – seals, porpoise, puffins, gannets, boats, fishermen, surfers. But I also observed how quickly the sea could be transformed, sometimes slowly from day-to-day, but other times in a matter of hours. When my four-year-old son is drawing the sea, he will immediately reach for the blue crayon. By spending a length of time staring out to the changeable sea, though, a plethora of beautiful colours emerge. These are often related to the sea’s condition – sometimes threatening and disturbingly dark, but, on other occasions, calm and crystal clear. One day, as I sat on a rock on the edge of a clifftop, I wrote in my notepad that the waves were like rolling, unforgiving white juggernauts crashing against the headland. The very next day, by now on a sandy beach, I jotted down that the sea was a serene stillness gently caressing the golden shoreline.
Like the changeable sea, our life journey is ever-changing. Sometimes all seems tranquil – we are blessed with times of joy, times of pleasure, and times of celebration. But sometimes storms rage around us – we have to face times of pain, times of anxiety, and times of grief. “There is a time for everything,” ponders Ecclesiastes (3:1), “and a season for every activity under the heavens”.
At those seasons of suffering in my own life, it has helped to remind myself that, like the rolling waves of the tide, our lives have a natural ebb and flow. Life is not a straight line, from birth to death, emerging from darkness and returning to darkness, or, indeed, from light to light. Rather, life is cyclical. The winters of our suffering can certainly be dark, long, cold, and painful, but spring will always burst forth. We wait for the snowdrops, because we know the daffodils will soon follow. We trust the nature of the seasons that this will happen, just as those of us who are Christians learn to trust that God will lead us out of our wait, however long and painful. The sixth-century theologian Boethius describes life as a wheel: “we rise up on the spokes, but we’re soon cast back down into the depths. Good times pass away, but then so do the bad. Change is our tragedy, but it’s also our hope. The worst of times, like the best, are always passing away”.
This thought, and this way of viewing the world, is helping me face the difficult wait of my own recuperation. As such, it is gradually transforming my anxious thoughts by giving me the strength to notice and value those little signs of spring breaking through the harshness of winter – to notice and value those daily moments of joy and grace that break through my continuing pain and frustration. This is as powerful a healing as any physical healing could offer. As an old proverb puts it: “Sometimes God calms the storm, but sometimes God calms the sailor”.