Why We Need Pain

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Dec 31, 2011

"Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved."
Helen Keller

Luke Reynolds caught my attention in his magazine article in The Writer titled "Why We Need Pain to Write." Reynolds references John Gardner, a fellow author, who gives the Ultimate call to action when it comes to pain and creation" who said, "Art begins in a wound." 

Gardner speaks from experience. At 12 years of age he accidentally killed his brother when he ran over him with a tractor on their family farm. His battle with guilt and depression, according to some observers, lasted his entire life. It was as though the shadow of that awful experience followed him everywhere. 

Reynolds suggests, "But the suffering he so tragically endured also served as a candle from which to draw light for his words. In a sense, Gardner the writer had to tell stories as a way to deal with the pain of the accident." 

We all try to avoid any kind of pain but when it comes, it does produce something we could receive in no other way. Reynolds, like all of us, resists pain but then admits, "I am a writer. The very best work I have crafted has come as a result of the pain I've felt in my own life, or from seeing pain effect the life of someone for whom I care deeply. Because it is pain that makes the heart break open, and an open heart is necessary for writing." 

As I read these words I found myself making a minor editorial change, "Pain makes the heart break open, and an open heart is necessary for anything (not just writing)." Pain, if handled well, can fuel any number of initiatives. And though we want to avoid it at all costs, we really do need pain to live more deeply, to serve more selflessly and to love more permanently. 

In the movie Shadowlands C. S. Lewis expressed a similar profound insight, "But pain insists on being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscious, but shouts to us in our pains: It is His megaphone to rouse the deaf world." 

Without a doubt, pain never leaves us where it finds us. And since it is normal, the lessons we learn from it become imbedded in our very souls. The pain of illness reminds us of the joy of health. I remember the pain of that kidney stone but I also remember standing in the parking lot free from pain after lithotripsy, a laser treatment which blasted that stone into scores of little pieces. 

The pain of a fractured friendship reminds us of the joy of friendships which endure the tests of time. The pain of failing a class reminds us of the joy of earning a degree. The pain of betrayal reminds us of the joy of loyalty. The pain of harsh words reminds us of the joy of fact and diplomacy. The pain of blindness reminds us of the joy of sight. The pain of the famine reminds us of the joy of the feast. 

Life is filled with pain. It cannot be avoided. But pain does not have to be an end to itself. It can become a means to something else. Through pain we can learn to appreciate a dimension of life that could be learned in no other way. To say that we need pain may seem sadistic. But with time and perspective, pain can be seen as a tool for a deeper life lived at a level which would be impossible without it. 

Charles Dickens said, "Suffering has been stronger than all the other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but - I hope - into a better shape." 

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
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