November 10, 2006

Scratching the Surface

May 23, 2005
2006 1532 page16 cap stood in line at the pharmacy today waiting to pay for a prescription for prednisone that the emergency room doctor had prescribed for my eczema flare-up. This bout of eczema has left me with almost 75 percent of my body covered with lesions that resemble second-degree burns.
For the most part I keep this chronic skin condition under control. Besides refraining from using harsh chemicals or heavy perfumes on my skin, I work to keep myself physically and emotionally healthy in order to wage war against the No. 1 public enemy of eczema: stress. (Quite tricky while working in a magazine office with weekly deadlines!) But notwithstanding these attempts, I occasionally will experience a flare-up that sends me to the pharmacy for medication that promises to make life bearable.
To the average person, the word “eczema” describes merely a skin rash. But to those who experience eczema, an understanding passes between us—an understanding that comes from itching so bad that we feel like ripping the skin off our bodies in order to alleviate it. But knowing that if we begin to scratch, the compulsive nature of our actions would take over, and we would either scratch until it bled, or we would scratch until we created a secondary infection.
2006 1532 page16In between placing cold packs on my body to keep from scratching; pacing the floor, shaking, waiting for the meds to kick in; and placing my hands in an ice bucket every 10 minutes to ease the burning, I’m not getting much sleep tonight! So I thought I’d write my way through the pain, and try to find some meaning in it. For I believe that if we can find meaning in our pain, it can become a source of grace.
I have come to believe that there are at least three great needs of someone in pain.

For others to take their pain seriously. 
When we are confronted with words from a loved one such as “Alzheimer’s,” “cancer,” or “divorce,” we immediately—and rightly so—respond with a soberness that says to that person, “Yes, your circumstances are tragic; I take your pain seriously.”

But what about the person whose pain is described with more seemingly benign words, such as “depression,” “phobia,” or “addiction”? Do we take their pain seriously enough to seek to understand their suffering? Or are these best responded to by saying, “Cheer up!” “That’s such an irrational fear, you know,” or “With a little more willpower and prayer, you’ll get over it.”
Taking someone’s pain seriously doesn’t mean we help them to wallow in it, or make it more than it is. Quite the opposite. Taking someone’s pain seriously means that we allow them to experience the pain—not pretend it doesn’t exist. And often the only way to get past the pain is to go through it.

For others to know they’re not alone.
My mother tells the story of when, more than 30 years ago, my dad walked into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting one evening drunk as a skunk. After a few hours of strong coffee and even stronger, but loving, dialogue, Daddy walked out of that meeting sober, never to drink again.

I asked Mom what it was that made Daddy do such a drastic turnaround. She said she asked him the same question. And his response was, “I found people just like me, and I knew I wasn’t alone.”
That’s why we need to share our struggles with each other, with those whom we can trust. Scripture tells us in 2 Corinthians 1:3, 4: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” [emphasis mine].
We need to know we’re not alone. There’s power in that knowledge. 

For others to intercede for them. 
The act of suffering requires vast amounts of energy. And much of that energy is focused on surviving the pain. But for many, I think it takes all of their energy to deal with the pain—so much so that they barely look outside of it long enough to even pray.

In my lowest moments, when the burning itch and loneliness seem more than I can bear, I tell myself that it’s futile to cry; that that will only make matters worse. But when the emotions overtake me, Roy reaches over to me, takes my hand, and prays for me. Most of the time it’s only after the calming that comes through his prayer that I remembered I hadn’t even thought to pray. And it wasn’t until tonight that I realized the power of his act. This is the task we are called to do for others—what many cannot do for themselves—especially when they are hurting.
I’ve come to view Jesus’ words: “Father, why have You forsaken me?” as one of the most faith-filled statements in Scripture. Jesus suffered the pain of separation from His Father for all of us. His pain went deeper and had far more eternal consequences than anything we will ever experience.
Yet in the midst of that suffering, His thoughts were directed toward His Father—even if only to ask why.
If we will take each other’s pain seriously, share our struggles with each other, and intercede for each other, I think we could go beyond merely scratching the surface in finding the grace moments in the midst of suffering. We could help stop the itch.