Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Boundaries of Emotional Pain - Revisited

In my adventures though good fiction, I stumbled this week onto The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, published first in 1910.  I have to say I cheated. I didn't read it but listened to it via MP3 format.

I started it last Saturday when I was running my first foot race, a half marathon.  I knew that my body would be hurting so badly that I needed something to draw me up into a fantasy world, far removed from the physical pain.  That's what my ear-buds did, like a vacuum, sucking my brain through my ears and into a world of peace an intoxicating narrative where the sharp pains in my knees and caves were only a faint memory left behind by my transcendent escape.  This morning I finished the "book" during my 7 1/2 mile run to the coffee shop.

I've been thinking about emotional pain a lot lately, and I'm not sure why but I do want to throw out some questions to challenge the status quo, at least when it comes to Christian thinking.

I must first explain the connection between the Secret Garden and this question about the boundaries of pain.  While there are many characters and metaphors within this book, I want to focus on one simple one, the plight of master Arichibald Craven and his grief over loosing his wife.  This was a wealthy man who managed a large estate in Yorkshire. His wife fell from a tree swing in one of the many gardens and died. At her death, Mr. Craven's world also died.  He locked up the garden, where she had taken her last breath, left his infant son, whom he assumed was an invalid, and walked the beautiful places of Europe in deep depression for . . . a decade.

There is a strong theme of the book that has a Christian Science connection, specifically how the living things of nature are healing. But that's not my point here.  My point is that Arichibald was a decent man. He didn't intend to be a neglecting father, after all he bought the best care he could for his sick son. But my point is, despite Arichibald's traveling to the most beautiful places, such as Norway, Switzerland and Italy's lake country, he was totally enveloped in a dark depression after his loss.  His depression wasn't self-willed. It was because he loved his wife dearly, and lost her. It was intrusive and irresistible.

Here is where I take this thought to the debate between he dualist and monist.  In Evangelical dualism, like with many forms of pantheism, this world is seen as a weight and what is wrong.  It is seen as intrinsically evil. To succeed, as a good Christian, it is thought that one must transcend, like I did the physical pain of my runs, but into a spiritual realm.  Once you reside there, as a godly person, the losses of this world grow dim and less meaningful.

It is in this mindset I watched as the most disciplined, self-proclaimed godly man I had ever known (the one who trained me in a Navigator training center) as he did not shed a tear when his 16 year old son was decapitated in a horrible accident. I remember how hard I tried to emulate this father who was so spiritual the he saw the accident as simple God carrying out his loving will, and to cry was to doubt God.

But my view now is that emotional pain is real, very real, more real than we have previously known. It is also self-determined, meaning it can not be halted until it runs its course.  It can be denied in this strange mental gymnastics (as my Nav leader did). It is the same type of emotional denial that fringes on the schizophrenics' world, of being totally disconnected from reality.  It isn't a healthly thing in my opinion. Anytime you remove yourself from reality, part of your soul also dies.  Yes, you can finish your life with your eyes open, a soft smile on your face, but the denial of your pain so intense that you are nothing more than a walking corpse.  Your skin becomes cold to the touch.

I know that many great minds in psychology have pondered this question, about what are the natural, and healthy boundaries of pain?  When does pain run its course?  For Achibald it was a decade.  For that time, he was consumed with his pain as a drowning man is with water.  Then finally, and who knows why, while sleeping on the shores of beautiful Lake Como, he once again realizes that he is still breathing, the sun is still shining and that he still has a son who needs him. But his time of mourning was not captured in minutes, hours, days, weeks or even months . . . but a full decade, almost to the day.  But that was only the darkest point of his pain. I'm sure, if he were a real character, that he carried the pain of his loss to his own real grave.

Of course pain can take us captive in an unhealthy way, where we never recover enough to function again. So, juxtaposed to the walking corpse of denial, is the similar walking corpse of eternal despondency.  I've seen both so many times.

In the latter case, it is what can be called in psychological terms as "prolonged bereavement."  But what is prolonged? I think that denial happens just as often as prolongement, and maybe even much more in Christian circles.

I must go and will come back to continue this idea. But I will say, it took me over a decade to recover from a failed missionary experience. I don't think there was anything I could have done to have shortened it. It had to work its way through and out the back side of my soul like a toxic acid. It took me five years to recover from another great loss a number of years ago.  But still, deep within my soul, I can hear echos of losses from childhood, high school and college.  I think we are all made of the same mortal stuff.  Pure grief must have its season and there is no stopping it. You can choose to take the blue pill of denial or the red pill of the agony of reality, but there is no balm that takes away the pain overnight.


PRS & ALS said...

I always thought it strange that when describing a person who had just experienced the loss of a loved one you might hear someone say the person "isn't doing well" if they were crying a lot. Or they would be said to be "doing well" if they weren't crying. Where did that come from? Are we so uncomfortable with expressions of grief that we feel the need to stifle it? Even when little children cry we sometimes tell them "Don't cry". Is it that we don't like to see people in pain? I tend at times to stifle my own pain because I don't want to make other people uncomfortable or seem like I'm weak. We go to such lengths to deny our humanity and our emotions. It's not only unhealthy, it's dishonest.

Anonymous said...

Love this post. Love it.

Denial is something that is so easy to do for all of us. Emotional pain is very difficult. If we are not good at dealing with our emotions (for example, if we grew up in homes where "happy" was acceptable, but "sad" or "mad" was considered a bad thing, then denial often feels like the safest course of action.

But denial is only easiest in the short term. In the long term, all that repression eats into us and finds its way out in all sorts of unhealthy ways. Whereas the person who faces the difficult emotions head on will initially appear to be doing worse (if one wants to judge by outward appearances)...but in the end, will emerge on the other side of the grief, a richer and more whole person because of it.

jmj said...

First I say, once again I'm sorry about all the typos. I typed the above while at Starbucks with three of my children and they were getting inpatient so I had to type fast and didn't proof-read.I'v fixed several but there still might be more. I wish I was better at typing fast without mistakes. I know I often type though when I mean thought, and that when I mean them or the. Anyway . . .

Of course I agree with you.I know the Semitic peoples give free reign to their emotions of grief, then they recover.

I raised this discussion with my family tonight to see what they think. I've know a couple of Denise friends whose husbands suddenly died (and each had been married for decades) and the widow starts dating heavily within a couple of months, re-marrying within a year. I wonder if that is a form of opium for the soul. There is a time for moving on,just like in the story. Where one day you just start breathing again. Yes, we should do need to press against despair and and chronic depression.

I remember trying to force myself to go on hikes, something I used to love to do, but didn't care for when I was depressed. Yet, in the same breath, I now think that true healing is defined by decades.

Eagle said...

MJ. Funny you should write about this. A few monthes back I picked up the soundtrack for the Secret Garden from Borders. It was for the Broadway musical. As I listened to the songs, and read about the plot...some of the same thoughts you write about popped into my mind. This book/musical deals with the topic of great emotional pain. However, and maybe this is what I long for, what I like the most about the story is the story or redemption and reconciliation that takes place at the end. It's touching....

I think many people in the world long for, and cry out for redemption and love. And yet its one of the areas that Christianity really fails out. For many Christinas love is works based and earned on the path to becoming "perfect."

Here are a couple of songs on Youtube.

A Bit of Earth

Hold On

Where In The World

How Could I Ever Know?

jmj said...

Eagle, I never knew that the Secret Garden was made into a musical. I knew it was made into a movie. I'm looking forward to listening to it when I have a quiet place to do so.

Taylor said...

Thanks for the thought provoking article. I do think there is a place for acknowledging that death has in fact lost it's sting (to avoid the corpse of despondency, as you put it, and also just to do service to the bright hope of the gospel). I would agree with you, though, that as Christians we probably default more often to bypassing important grieving processes in an attempt to conform to our perception of what a joyful and strong Christian should look like. That is unhealthy, as you point out. After all, Jesus wept over Lazarus' death, even when he knew he was going to raise him.

solarblogger said...

Thanks for the recommendation for The Secret Garden. I downloaded a free copy for my Kindle. I'm about a third of the way through. Great writing. C.S. Lewis was right when he said a child's book that is not still good when read by an adult is not a good child's book. This is one of the good ones. When read for the first time in adulthood, it works quite well. (The Wind in the Willows is another.)

jmj said...

I'm so happy I discovered reading for the art of the writer than just always gaining knowledge. I use to only read nonfiction and thought that fiction was a waste of time. Boy was I wrong.

solarblogger said...

In this case, one aspect of the writer's art I admire is the use of anticipation. I couldn't wait for Dickon to appear in the book. What a great character!