“Life is pain…Anyone who tells you different is selling something.”
-The Man in Black, The Princess Bride
I am a psychotherapist. I have worked with kids who have been in situations like being raped, locked in closets for days, whipped with electrical cords dipped in hot grease or had their parents killed by cars, by people or by aneurysms. Kids who have allowed drug addictions to puppet them into prostitution, home invasion, armed robbery and all manner of violent, degrading, soul-damaging behavior. I am a Christian. I believe in God, that he is good, and that He orders life.
How do I reconcile damage of life with God’s goodness? My heart aches every time I hear such tales. Every time. Is there any reconciliation for the damage of life? The addiction, pain, violence or loss? I do believe there is. We’ll walk a bit of that reconciling road today, but remember, the end of this road is long off, and different for each person whom I’ve had the humbling honor to look in the eye and work out the essential question, “Why did God let this happen?”
Beauty’s Black Eye
“We’re not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us;
we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be”
-C.S. Lewis, Writer
With full disclosure, the spark which built into my fire for this post did not come from therapeutic work. It came from Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch Season Six. I’ve watched every season in reruns, and I even have the video game. It’s been a long time since I’ve “discovered” anything on it, one of Discovery Channel’s highest grossing shows. Until this season. I could never have floated the idea that any of their crab fishing episodes were art. Until this season. I have never cried watching this show, for these men, until this season. Until the death of Phil Harris, captain of the fishing boat Cornelia Marie.
Shortly before his death, Phil was brought face to face with his youngest son’s drug addiction, and confronted him while skippering his ship. As I’ve worked in addiction therapy; the look on Phil’s face rang true. No longer the brash, bold sea captain, just the hurt father. Phil has never seemed one to hide his love from his sons—though it often came out blustering and profane. The love, which sharpened that look of pain, could not be denied, even as Phil threatened to punch “the teeth I paid for” out of his son’s mouth if he kept lying to him in a drug induced stupor.
Later, Phil had a stroke and collapsed. He made a brief, surprising rally, then passed away. Though the Alaskan Crabbing Fleet fought the biggest storm of the season, the pots of crab kept being hauled, and everything that Deadliest Catch is known for ratcheted up, the show was now about that loss.
And in that loss, there was beauty.
Waiting on the Other Side
“The best things in life are unseen, that’s why we close our eyes when we cry kiss and dream.”
-Anonymous, though told to me by a former client
That is the struggle, for me and for many, with experiencing the suffering of life. That there is beauty to be found in it, and beauty to be had on the other side, if we move through it healthily. Part of moving through the damage of life healthily is seeing the beauty and allowing yourself to experience it while also feeling the pain. Allowing both emotions mingle in your heart. The ache grows into awe, then to an unusual, deeper, sensation. Some say it is peace. Others say it is hope, or resignation. I feel it is acknowledgment of the power of our lives. Not good, bad, happy or sad, just power. Many of us weep then.
I have felt it myself. I felt it this past Sunday when my daughter climbed on the couch and laid her head in my lap. She then called my wife from the kitchen and asked her to lay down beside her. My family sprawled, contented next to me, two year old Illyana said “pat me, Daddy.” My heart ached with awe and gratitude. Yes, gratitude to God, with full understanding that she is our third child—the first two were miscarriages. On the other side of that pain, waited this moment of beauty. During that pain were many moments of beauty. Bearing witness to my wife’s strength. Feeling my family and friends draw close. Finding the hope and determination to try again, something which my wife and I never knew about each other until tested.
My wife and I were forged into parents in that repeated fire. Any vain, immature desire for a child was burnt away, leaving only the power of life, and the desire to pass it on. Despite the pain we knew that she would face.
Because it is pain with a purpose.
Like Salt in a Cake
“We turn to God for help when our foundations are shaking, only to learn
that it is God who is shaking them.”
-Charles C. West, author
Sig and Edgar Hansen of the Northwestern wept for the loss of their long-time fisherman friend. These three Norwegians have shown the world their endurance, grizzled strength and cavalier attitude toward the more emotional side of life for six years. But the loss of Phil shook them all. It forced an immediate comparison and evaluation of their lives. Sig, the chain smoking captain, threw his pack of cigarettes with a venomous look at the camera. Edger, the unstoppable, invulnerable deck boss, paused and began to ponder a career change which would bring him closer to his daughters. That is pain with a purpose.
Josh Harris, Phil’s drug addicted son, was in rehab when Phil passed. Outside of rehab, an addict gets high when facing pain like that. Inside, he’ll find help. If Phil had to give his life to save his son, not only is it pain with a purpose, but it’s an easy call for Deadliest Catch fans. He’d do it in an instant.
Most of all, the pain of life is what makes the beauty beautiful. That is not a platitude. That is something which I believe to the core and something which many of my clients spend months working towards. I believe that we are not good people by nature. We are selfish, angry, lazy and apathetic, by nature. Yet we become even better than good people when we overcome our nature by our spirit, which is where the personal power of our lives is found. Without pain we would take beauty for granted, with out death making every living moment precious, we would take life for granted. That is human nature. But in that tension, that tug-of-war between nature and spirit, between pain and peace, is where the beauty of life is found.
On another fishing boat, the Time Bandit, the Hilstrand family also took a moment to say goodbye to their fellow fisherman. All hands marshaled on deck with arm loads of roman candles. With shouts and cheers of “Whooo Phil!” they blasted the sky and celebrated his rough life. That is my favorite way pain becomes beauty; defiant acceptance. The defiance of pain with joy. We look the damage of life square in the festering eye and embracing it, simply reveling that we are still alive and there is joy to be had. That is beauty.
How do I reconcile the pain of life with the goodness of God? I don’t. It doesn’t need to be reconciled. It needs to be accepted. Not liked. But accepted with the resolve to eventually defy that pain and live life well. The pain of life is as valuable as the peace. Variety may be the spice of life, but pain is the salt of life, just like in a cake. It helps preserve the whole and adds contrast to the sweet.