How to better our emotional response to pain

Mary Magdalene Weeping, detail from Stations of the Cross in Saint-Symphorien de Pfettisheim, Bas-Rhin, France, 19th century.

By Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ

You may be having a heart attack right now, and not even know it. 

Now, in fairness, I must confess that I’m making a play on the word “heart.” I don’t mean the pump in your chest. I mean heart in the spiritual sense, that is, the “heart” at the center of the word “discouragement”— from the Middle French descouragement, meaning “loss-of-heart.” Frustration, disappointment, grief, etc., are all very ordinary, inevitable human experiences. Discouragement is an attack against the center of the soul; it is a distraction from God and his promises, a narrowing and lowering of vision.

The sting of pain and loss can turn us in upon ourselves, withdrawing us from the active pilgrimage towards God; likewise, it can disorient us, that is, prompt us to blink or even turn away from God’s sustaining grace and promises. When the shock of disruption is allowed to find a home in us, we begin to suffer a loss-of-heart and an un-fixing of our vision, which should be fixed firmly upon Christ who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

We mistakenly think that when a painful event occurs, we immediately have an emotional response to the event. Rather, an event occurs, we tell ourselves a story about the event, and then we have an emotional response to the story. If the story we tell ourselves is that “God is gone, God has failed, I don’t have what I need, the whole world is against me, this pain is all there is, this pain is personal, pervasive and permanent,” etc., then of course our spiritual defenses are compromised, and our spiritual enemy is ready to make his move.

There’s an oft-repeated quip at meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous: “Poor me, poor me, pour me another drink …” Pain that’s allowed to become discouragement, that’s allowed to become self-pity, can open the doors to sinful self-indulgence—and the devil finds that very attractive. Left unchecked, the process will devolve into despair, which is deadly. What to do?

Three steps:

  1. Acknowledge, the pain, the grief, the loss.
  2. Acknowledge that pain, etc., may be inevitable, but discouragement is a choice.
  3. Stop thinking and acting as a spiritual orphan, and return to God’s person and promises—whether you feel like it or not.

Recall what God promised in Psalm 91: “I will protect those who know my name.  When they call to me, I will answer them …” If we develop the habit of practicing the presence of God, that is, if we choose to remind ourselves of the unchangeable truth that God is always present to us and available for us, then we’ll be more ready to call upon and cling to God when the shocks of life inevitably arise. 

I find much consolation in these words from Scripture scholar John Barclay, reflecting on the power of the Gospel of John:

… it is as if Jesus said: ‘Feed your heart, feed your mind, feed your soul on the thought of my humanity. When you are discouraged and in despair, when you are beaten to your knees and disgusted with life and living – remember I took that life of yours and these struggles of yours on me.’ Suddenly life and the flesh are clad with glory, for they are touched with God. It was and is the great belief of the Greek orthodox Christology that Jesus deified our flesh by taking it on himself. To eat Christ’s body is to feed on the thought of his humanity until our own humanity is strengthened and cleansed and irradiated by his.

As with Mary Magdalene, who could not find the risen Christ because she was looking for the living among the dead, the pains of life can have us facing the wrong way, attending to the pain rather than attending to the source of life. However difficult our lives might be (and as a Jesuit priest, I’ve spent 30 years ministering to people at the most extreme limits of pain and loss), we mustn’t forget that Christ chose to enter into all of the human condition. Wherever there is human misery, there is Christ offering to lift us up. Whenever we decide that “life is unbearable,” Christ extends his wounded hands and says, “Let me carry you.”

I don’t have a cheerful temperament. I’m suspicious of optimism. Hope does not come readily to me. I’ve often described myself as a “dark, brooding melancholic Irishman with an apocalyptic imagination.” Even so, I know, not only from observation but also from too much direct, bitter, personal experience, that allowing discouragement to take us over harms us and dishonors God. Let’s stop thinking and acting as orphans, and let’s make better choices.

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