Painful but valuable lessons!

It’s almost been six months since I had spinal surgery. My hope was that the surgery would reduce, or even better, rid me of the pain I have been living with over recent years. My surgeon tells me that his intervention has significantly reduced my risk of experiencing paraplegia. Now that’s a big win, but unfortunately my pain is back to pre-surgery levels. 

This week I sat down with my pain specialist. She has a very caring manner, but she also talks straight, which I appreciate. She told me last October to get surgery and get it quickly! And now without the outcomes we were hoping for: “You may need to live with this condition for many years to come, so what do you say we have a go at doing all we can to manage the pain.” 

I liked her attitude, but I wasn’t quite in the mood for a high five and a “let’s go doctor”! But I did leave the appointment thankful that I have ready access to expertise like this and all the associated services that will follow. Ahead, new medication, more scans, spinal injections and some new treatments that I’m still not sure I understand.

Maybe like me, as you navigate stretching seasons in life, something always seems to happen around you – big or small – that brings fresh perspective. As I sat in the specialist’s waiting room, an older lady came out from her appointment. She spoke to the receptionist about her strong pain and recent rounds of unsuccessful chemotherapy. She spoke graciously. She thanked the receptionist. And as she left, she smiled at me, and wished me “all the best”.  I was suddenly mindful that I don’t stand in this lady’s shoes. She has much more on her pain plate. I offered a short, silent prayer for this brave and warm stranger.

And while it’s been a challenging week, dealing with physical realities beyond my control, something else put these things firmly in their place. And in this instance, I wish I could swap shoes with my beautiful boy, who following his latest surgery has been subject to constant teasing and taunting at school. I admire his resilience, but constant taunts like “here comes the disabled kid” has taken a big emotional toll this week. 

I questioned myself about mentioning this bullying, because I know my boy – like most 11 year olds – fears that talking about it will only make matters worse for him. But I choose to write about it here because, be in the school yard or the work place, there is so much more we need to do to address bullying and its impacts. I know the pain of being bullied as an adult. My heart breaks for my boy. And again, I know there are kids enduring far worse. It’s a reminder – a challenge – for all of us as parents to be talking about bullying with our kids. And not tolerating it in workplaces either. 

As Megan and I stand alongside our son, I am very thankful for good, caring people who stand alongside me. I’m thankful for people like a mate who spent considerable time yesterday helping Megan with a home renovation task. My mate knows that I couldn’t currently physically do the work – and better still, he knows that I’m the world’s worst handyman and Megan is the one who picks up the tools in our house. I’m thankful for family and friends who check in on me, people who pray with me, work colleagues who are incredibly caring and supportive.

And with this community alongside me, I have been reminded many times of the challenges faced by people living alone with chronic pain. More power to them! As one such person told me recently, loneliness is more often harder to live with than physical pain. Loneliness is one of our nation’s greatest, yet often hidden, social illnesses. 

And so can I encourage you – if you know someone who lives alone – particularly if you know they’re doing it tough – be a vital lifeline for them. There is so much power in a phone call, a knock at the door, a meal on the doorstep, an unsolicited act of kindness.

Before I entered this phase of my life, I had journeyed as a pastor with many people – young and old – experiencing chronic pain in their life. They often spoke of common challenges:

  1. The hidden nature of chronic pain. It’s not seen by others. And at times this means that others don’t understand the pain someone is grappling with, while the person experiencing pain does not want to bring it to the attention of others. 
  2. Imposter feelings. Those thoughts that “I’m making it up”, “others will be thinking I’m a fake”, “I shouldn’t be feeling this way”, “I should just get up and get going”. 
  3. The significant impact physical pain has on emotional and mental health. 
  4. The impact on family members.
  5. A fear of medication addiction.
  6. Uncertainty of what lay ahead

In the past few years, this once helpful care-giving informational list, has become deeply personalised. I now know what it’s like to live with each of the above realities.

But I also know the power of some other very important things that people spoke to me about in the past. Things like: 

  • The importance of being honest and authentic.
  • The importance of listening to your body [a work in progress for me!].
  • The absolute gift of having loved ones in your corner.
  • Perspective, as I have written of above.
  • The importance of staying positive [not always possible, but yes important].
  • Appreciating health professionals.
  • The therapy of the great outdoors and exercise [something I trying to get back into] 
  • The place of prayer.
  • The difference faith makes.
  • And the joy of being engaged in purposeful things.  

I’m fortunate to be still fully engaged in my work. Some days are harder than others. I’ve needed to develop rhythms that include time for rest. Travel can take its toll, but it’s also so life-giving. And I know I still push too hard at times. But I am so thankful for the wonderful, passionate team of people I get to serve alongside and lead! 

And with that comes the joy of investing in things that which certainly bring fresh perspective each day. 

Like seeing Australian Baptists generously respond to an appeal that will help some of the most vulnerable people on the planet – refugees fleeing Myanmar – like Aung and Enga – who I sat with in an Indian refugee camp a few months back.

Or like the phone call I took this week from a young man, who with his wife, both professionals, don’t want to get trapped in climbing the success ladder, but are asking big questions of where can they use their skills to serve others across the globe. 

Or to watch a video of women graduating from a tailoring course in Malawi. These women live in highly impoverished communities and yet here they were beautifully dressed in clothes they had made. They had delightful smiles on their faces, as they celebrated finishing their course. You sensed the increased dignity this opportunity had created. And they now have skills to establish micro businesses that can make such a difference in the lives of their families. Here is love in action! 

In this journey of navigating pain, my faith has been more robust. It has been stretched, tested and deepened and I am genuinely thankful for this. The Good Shepherd, who has seen me through some challenging seasons in the past, continues to walk alongside me, navigating me through the valley. 

And my physical pain reminds me each day that I live in a beautiful but broken world – a world that groans for redemption, a world that groans for peace, a world with so much beauty, and yet so much pain. Too much pain! 

And in the midst of this, comes the most beautiful invitation. It is extended to all of us – as ordinary, broken people – who are works in progress, or as Ted Lasso would say, “works in progmess”. It’s gracious invitation from our God to join him in bringing his beautiful shalom to broken and dislocated lives, communities, spaces and places.

I’m thankful to be learning more and more of what it means to live as a wounded healer, as Henri Nouwen so beautifully captured it. Yes, with a dodgy spine, pain in my body, pins and needles in my arms and legs, and plenty of emotional and spiritual scars from across the years. But also the opportunity to look beyond myself; to look up and to look out and see so many people who daily face trauma, hurt, discrimination, bigotry, disadvantage, pain and loss. More than I will ever likely experience. 

To such beautiful people – and tonight to my gorgeous boy, I’m thankful that God invites me to join him, and play my small part, in bringing his beautiful shalom to the world!

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