The Problem of Pain
The announcement this past week that the pop/rock musician Prince died from an overdose of fentanyl confirmed what had been suspected since his untimely death in April 2016. Prince had become addicted to prescription opiate painkillers. Sadly, his was a very public face to what many are calling an epidemic. Though a devoted Jehovah's Witness and by all reports fastidious about his health, his attempt to alleviate chronic pain morphed into an addiction that eventually took his life.
Over the past two years, there has hardly been a week without a headline or sobering story concerning the record number of deaths from opiate overdose in the United States. A New York Times article announced an unexpected rise in the death rate for the United States. Death rates—the number of deaths per hundred thousand people—have been in decline for many years, the article noted. Yet a sharp rise has occurred, in part, because of the prescription drug epidemic. If the rise continues, the researchers noted, it could be a signal of distress in the overall health of the nation.(1)
The struggle with chronic pain and the difficult and complex task for professionals who treat it made me wonder about how societies deal with pain in general. In a recent article from The Economist called "The Problem of Pain," global treatment and attitudes toward pain were explored in light of the U.S. epidemic of opiate prescriptions and overdose. The author notes that when illness strikes, patients in poorer countries expect to suffer. Even when the tumor on his hip grew to the size of a football, Mato Samaile, a frail 50 year-old Nigerian cattle farmer, was reluctant to go to the hospital. "When I found the lump I said to my son: 'We can't leave the farm. We should stay until after the rain falls.'" Amina Ibrahim, a surgeon at the hospital where Mato was eventually admitted, notes, "People are brought up to tolerate pain. If you don't you are a coward. That is just our culture. So even doctors are not liberal on painkillers."(2)
Of course, in many parts of the world, there is little or no access to any kind of palliative care or pain management. The Economist reported a story about a young boy with cancer in rural India. He had visited several clinics nearer to his home in search of pain relief before stumbling into a Hyderabad hospital, ragged and short of breath. It had taken him more than 12 hours to get there, and he died soon afterwards.(3)
Vennila, a nurse Agni Raksha, which means 'protection from fire.' Read more of Agni Raksha's beautiful story and mission here.(4)
It is difficult for me to imagine a world prior to modern pain relief, and I cannot imagine what it must be like to live with excruciating pain day after day. What I do know is how easy it is for me to seek out ways to alleviate the daily pain that accompanies living—both physical and psychic. And sometimes I wonder if these strategies end up leaving me less resilient or able to deal with harsher realities. In a technologically advanced world, where I simply need to push a button, I do not exert any effort. With faster and faster speeds for almost any product, I do not have to wait for anything. And for whatever ails me physically, I can simply take a pill for that. I wonder if my minor attempts at pain avoidance may actually weaken my ability to endure it when it comes.
That human beings seek to avoid pain and maximize pleasure is not complicated or difficult to understand. Yet, the factors that contribute to the way in which a society views and treats pain are varied and complicated. Opiate addiction is just as tragic as the underlying pain that precipitates opiate use. But the current opiate epidemic should be cause for concern about the lengths we go to avoid pain.
Of course, with this issue, like so many others, we walk a fine line. It seems instinctual to want to alleviate pain or suffering. How hard it is to sit with someone who is in pain and not be able to do anything for him or her. And to read stories of those in other parts of the world who endure physical and psychological suffering without any of the medical comforts from which so many benefit breaks the heart and makes me wonder about a world so unfair and inequitable.
That the Christian story is of a God who did not avoid the pain of the world but entered into it should be remarkable even to those who might look skeptically at the Christian faith. Jesus lived among human beings who were in pain. He brought healing and pain relief—in every sense of that word—to many he encountered. To the woman who had endured much at the hands of many physicians, who spent all that she had but had only grown worse, Jesus brought relief from 12 years of suffering and ostracism.
While his life was not a glorification of suffering, Jesus suffered and experienced pain. Even as he delivered others from their suffering, he did not seek the same for himself in more ways than one. He experienced the psychological pain of misunderstanding, rejection, and betrayal. In bearing the physical and psychic agony of Roman crucifixion, he participated in the human experience of pain at its deepest level. Christian teaching rightly emphasizes the spiritual implications of the crucifixion of Jesus in atonement doctrines. But his death was also a willing subjection to the most awful aspects of human existence, and perhaps this can assist all who explore Christian faith—those who are in pain and those who will be in pain at some point in the human journey. This is not the impassible god of the Greek philosophers. Rather, Christianity asserts that God enters into the darkest realities of human brokenness and pain as Jesus of Nazareth for the sake of all who are in pain.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) Sabrina Tavernise, "First Rise in U.S. Death Rate in Years Surprises Experts," The New York Times, June 1, 2016.
(2) "The Problem of Pain," The Economist, May 28, 2016.
(4) Agni Raksha, a foundation that provides care to local burn victims, was founded in 1999 by Dr. Prema Dhanraj and has been a project supported by Wellspring International since 2008. Read more at http://wellspringinternational.org/project/agni-raksha/.