I have been on an interesting journey for nearly the past four weeks. It was a journey I did not intend to initiate, nor a journey I would have chosen for myself, and like so many voyages has provided a wellspring of experiential knowledge to me.
About four weeks ago while in the kitchen preparing a meal of some sort our fifteen-year-old son and I were wrestling around with each other when he challenged, "Dad, I'll bet you can't pick me up." In a moment of paternal carelessness, I accepted the challenge, only to discover that he was right, and that I was wrong. Perhaps it was an historic thing. When we first met John and his sisters years ago he was a slight, short eight-year-old who was lighter than a feather. Upon our first face-to-face meeting he literally stood up on the chair he was in and jumped into my arms. Maybe it was reaching into the emotive shadows of yesterday or the simple jubilation of the moment that caused me to respond as I did, but in any case it was a foolish choice. John is no longer a slight eight-year-old. He is now a stocky, still short, well over 200 pound fifteen-year-old. And so I accepted the challenge, wrapped my arms under his arms and lifted. Or something like that.
Because in that moment, without even accomplishing my goal of lifting him from the floor, I felt something in the lower left side of my back telling me I should let go quickly. Which I did. But not quickly enough.
It was at that moment that my new constant companion, pain, greeted me. In truth, this companion is something of an old acquaintance, because we have had similar interactions in the past. About once a year, it seems, some inane or innocuous action on my part welcomes this visitor back into my life for several weeks, although each time it seems to linger a little longer and become a bit more debilitating.
In the beginning days I had hoped this friend would spend only a few days with me and depart, but a constant companion is a better way to describe the relationship after these three plus weeks. Somewhere along the way I have decided that I would do better to name this presence "companion" rather than "intruder." And so in the moments of sleepless restlessness and appendage-numbing discomfort, I have been learning a few things.
I have learned the value of a restful, pain-free night. Lack seems to be an excellent instructor in the school of gratitude. And without flouting my piety too much, in those moments I have been able to pray with greater alacrity for many I meet in my pastoral life who suffer constant pain.
I have learned the blessing that good health is. It's not as if my whole body was involved in my foolish choice to attempt lifting a large amount of unexpected weight. And yet my whole body has been involved. It makes me much more sensitive to the expressed concerns of others who speak of pain as wearisome, tiresome, and affecting all of the body and mind, even if it is focused in only one part of the physical body.
I am learning to slow down and feel every move. This is not a volitional act, mind you; it is a pragmatic and necessary one. Simple tasks like putting on shoes, bending over the pick up a paperclip, or picking up clothes from the floor now require an intentional plan, and a plan that will not avoid a painful response of some sort.
I am learning the value of pushing through the discomfort and doing what will be ultimately healthy, though it does not seem like it at the time. I have always enjoyed walking for the pleasure of it, but now I walk because it makes my back feel better, even though it's an effort to put on my walking shoes, leash the dog and actually initiate the walk process. Once I have endured the first few minutes of discomfort, the pain dissipates and I feel the welcome relief of loosening muscles and ligaments.
I have learned, in humility, to be more receptive to those who express pain to me. When I hear, "Oh, my aching back" or "I moved the wrong way and something snapped" or "My arthritis feels especially bad today" I can now say, with words or simply within my own consciousness, "I understand."
And I am continuing to learn that sometimes our more important companions in life are those who cause us enough pain to listen more intently, feel more deeply, and identify more wholly.
Don't get me wrong. I will not be disappointed when my new constant companion becomes a fair-weather friend again. But until then I will seek the learning this life partner is bringing my way.