It sounds strange – let go of pain. Who would want to hold on to it? But we are complicated people. Sometimes pain grabs us and it won’t let go; sometimes it grabs us and we grab it right back. And we have our reasons.
“I am looking for a witness.” One toddler axiom is this: Mom must be a witness to my pain. When a child gets hurt, he or she seeks out a sympathetic adult, preferably Mom. Once Mom is in view the child, tearless up to that point, suddenly breaks out into sobs, moans, howls and ear-piercing wails. The child is holding on to pain until the right person witnesses it. Pain is best shared.
I do this with my wife about once a week. Everything must be carefully crafted. Since she doesn’t like complaining, I can’t sound too pitiful or woe-is-me. Since I am older than a toddler and an aspiring man’s man, I can’t cry, but I can suggest that if I were less of a man I just might. Then, she becomes a sympathetic witness and all is well. Yes, my child within seems to be alive and well.
This raises lots of questions. What if there is no appropriate person in sight? Remember, a witness can’t be just anyone. For toddlers, Dad rarely works. What if you are single? Maybe you are still looking for a witness. If a good friend is not available, you might settle for a co-worker, or a bar tender. I know there have been times when someone I never met looked to me to be a witness, not because I was empathic but because I made eye contact. I probably have done the same thing with others.
This seems fairly normal. Life works best when we bear each other’s burdens, even if we can get a bit childish about it at times. The problems come when we feel as though we must have a sympathetic witness, without such a person our pain is meaningless, and we become committed to holding on to the pain until we find that right person.
“Particular people must witness my pain, and they must do it in a way I prescribe, though I am not going to spell out exactly what that is. If they can’t figure it out, then they can keep at it until they get it right.” This is a more extreme version of the toddler law, and it can be dangerous. Pastors have been fired because they didn’t do it “right” and word got around. This plea is a desire for a sympathetic ear but the desire has run amok. It is idolatry. Where you find the word must you find idols and problems.
In these cases, our sympathetic witness typically disappoints. If the witness happens to respond perfectly, the day will come when the witness fails and, as a result, the pain becomes more complicated. The original pain persists; overlaid is the pain of not being heard. And, like being invested in a losing stock, we hold on to the pain and hope that it will eventually pay off.
“I want someone to remember.” This is a slight variation on the witness theme. When the pain comes from an accident, a witness is usually enough, but if it comes from an injustice, then we want a witness who will remember.
The victims of the Holocaust fit this response. Many who experienced the Holocaust held on to the pain until they could pass it on to suitable custodians of the memory. Trials for war criminals helped, so did a national museum in Washington where the exhibits sear that pain into the consciousness of everyone who walks through the room filled with victims’ shoes. Now, more people remember.
Why do some people who are filled with pain pursue literature or movies that only compound that pain? Sometimes it’s because they are magnetically drawn to anything that might give words to their pain. A lifeless witness is still a witness. Sometimes it is because they want to make sure that at least they themselves remember the pain, and the literature keeps memories alive. If you believe no one remembers your injustice, you will hold on to your pain until someone does. Here is where you might find pain that is laced with anger. If so, beware. Anger is tenacious. It doesn’t let go of us and we don’t let go of it unless it is satisfied. And if the price of holding on to anger means that we hold on to the accompanying pain, then so be it.
“Pain is my identity.” There is a human tendency to want to both fit in and stand out. One observation from those who struggle with disabilities is that the disability is wretched at helping you fit in, but it does very well at letting you stand out. As a result, disability can become an identity. We might prefer that our identity was rich CEO or brilliant problem-solver, but identities are hard to come by and, usually, when we stumble across something that distinguishes us from the rest of the herd, we stick with it. We hold on to it—even if it’s pain.
These are just samples of why we hold on to pain. They do not necessarily mean that we intentionally hold on to it. But many people who have traveled this path will tell you that, as they look back on their relationship with pain, they clung to it more than they realized. As a result, they prolonged misery and delayed spiritual fruitfulness.
If this sounds familiar, please be hopeful. Typically in the face of pain we believe that all we can do is passively wait. But if we are holding on to pain in any way, we can jettison some of it.
The process of letting go has already begun. You are identifying a subterranean current in the human heart and bringing to the surface. That is the hard part. The rest is easy, or at least—easier.
This is what the Sovereign LORD, the Holy One of Israel, says: “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength.” (Isaiah 30:15)
We consider the life of Jesus, who was humanness at its best, though the people he loved never understood him. We learn how to speak from our hearts to the One who hears. We rest in the Lord, who is the best of witnesses. We entrust ourselves to him, who assures us that he remembers and is bringing justice. We repent of the anger that says, “if God won’t do anything, then I will take matters into my own hands.” Easy–because Jesus is our loving and reigning Lord.