I’m a little over two weeks post-op for my rotator cuff surgery. Yesterday I had my second physical therapy appointment and I’m convinced that before that time I had yet to truly experience pain. I thought I had, but at the moment when the pain was most excruciating and my forearm and hand were involuntarily shaking and spasming as if to say “ENOUGH! I can’t take any more!” I realized any previous pain was only discomfort comparatively.
I’ve had a lot of time to think about pain in the last two weeks. There were two nights in particular after the surgery that I was in so much pain that I couldn’t sleep but only got about 5, 20 minute naps. It was the kind of pain that doesn’t allow you to concentrate on anything else. Kelli offered several times to turn on a show but I declined. How could I watch TV while it felt like a child was being birthed out of my shoulder? (that may be a little dramatic). Couldn’t read, couldn’t watch, couldn’t focus on anything else. The only thing that didn’t make it worse was simply to sit in silence. Thankfully that only happened during the first four days after surgery and because of my narcotic-induced state, the time passed quickly.
In any case, all of this has caused me to reflect on the experience of pain.
- There are certain contexts in which avoiding or circumventing pain is detrimental to healing and wholeness.
In fact, yesterday as my legs were kicking and arm was spasming while the physical therapist made my arm go in places that I would not have believed possible, I noticed a few times that when I was in the most pain, the physical therapist would look away. She was clearly not looking at anything in particular. It was almost as if she knew that if she looked at me, she would feel sympathy and be forced to relent in doing what she knows is absolutely necessary for my healing. Fascinating!
- Without some regular experience of pain, it’s easy to become hardened to the pain of others.
I have lost count of how many surgeries my father has had. Two hips replaced, a knee replaced, a shoulder surgery, other assorted knee surgeries. Seems that his body has taken a beating from all the years of motorcycle racing (which he will quickly dismiss as not being the problem.) However, I was not able to empathize with his experience properly despite having a few knee surgeries myself (those were a piece of cake comparatively), because I had not experienced the difficulties surrounding a long and painful recovery myself. Just in the past two weeks, I find myself being softened to the pain of those around me and truly feeling empathy for their suffering.
- There is always someone who has experienced more pain or suffered more than you. But that does not mean your pain or suffering is not legitimate or does not deserve empathy.
When you have shoulder surgery you will quickly find and bond with those who have had the same experience. I’m amazed at what people have endured. A friend TK had a terrible shoulder injury and LONG recovery. Devin’s mom has had 2 rotator cuff surgeries on EACH shoulder! Brian had a long labrum repair recovery with a bad sickness on top of it. I met a man at a restaurant last night who had a muscle transplant in 1971 and had his arm secured to his chest for 6 months! He said to me “that looks uncomfortable” referring to my arm in a sling. I laughed in my mind and thought, “uncomfortable! are you kidding me? excruciating!” And then he told me his story and it put things in perspective. All of those individuals I’ve named have probably had “more” pain than I have (if you can quantify such a thing). But that doesn’t mean any of our own personal experience with pain is unimportant or should be dismissed simply because “someone is always hurting worse.”
- Toughness does not mean denying the reality of pain or never talking about the experience with anyone.
In fact, I think there is a level of complaining that is appropriate and necessary regardless of how “tough” you are. Of course, complaining always has limits and I hope I am not crossing the line where it becomes incredibly irritating for those around me. (You’ll have to talk with my wife about that). But there’s a myth that still exists that if you are tough enough, you simply won’t talk about the pain, or ever even acknowledge that it hurts. All I can say to that is, what a bunch of BS.
- Sometimes the only purpose pain serves is physiological.
None of us want to suffer in a way that is void of meaning. Some of us spend lots of time reflecting and searching out some kind of profound spiritual lesson while undergoing bouts of pain. I believe that there are times when God does do something profound through pain, but sometimes He doesn’t. Sometimes the only function pain serves is to tell you that something is wrong with your body, that you’re injured, that you need to rest; your nerves are sending a message to your brain that you need to address a physical need or problem. And honestly, I’m okay with that.
- Finally, on a more trivial, sports related note; when a pitcher in the MLB tears their rotator cuff, I will have a better understanding of why 50% of them will never pitch again.