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.