How are medicine and the church similar? Neither is all that good at treating pain!
Back in the late 90’s when I was a health care chaplain in a skilled nursing facility I was struck by the reluctance of the medical folk to provide the amount of pain relief needed by some of our most vulnerable residents. Until they entered Hospice Care (and with it certification they were dying) many ill residents were not given the amount of pain relievers that could actually control their pain. When I asked the medical director about this he mumbled something about not wanting to provide levels that would be addictive. But too often the level provided just barely touched the pain at all. And the residents suffered, often in a silence created by the lived experience that talk of their pain is thought to be exaggerated, or just not believed.
Before anyone thinks I am throwing stones at another discipline let me go on to say that while the church does not prescribe pain relieving medication it is also in the role of dealing with people’s pain. Most of it is emotional and spiritual in nature. Yet pain of whatever variety is pain. As a 40 year practitioner in this field I am sorry to admit I/we are not very good in hearing or holding or helping with this kind of pain either. We prefer to deny pain or deny people the opportunity to talk about and thus share their pain. In the church we do not have the reason/excuse of wanting to prevent addiction. Our excuse is different, it is helplessness – ” there is nothing I can do to fix it.” “I don’t have the answer, I don’t have a cure, I cannot DO anything about it.” And people suffer, in silence, because of their lived experience that talk of their pain creates distance and isolation.
What we forget is that allowing another to share their pain gives us the ability to share it with them and at least temporarily stand with them in bearing their pain. I may not be able to reduce the pain, but pain shared is pain that is more bearable. For someone to know and stand with me in my pain brings me out from the shadows, brings it from a taboo topic to a human experience that is not wrong nor politically incorrect. To give voice makes it real not only to the one sharing but also and more importantly to the one with who is open to receive such sharing. But even this in itself is not enough. We need to help people redeem their pain – to find their whole selves again – and to live into a future that learns from pain but is not stuck in it.
Both in medicine and in the church we forget that there is healing that is not cure. Unlike the common definition healing is not the cessation of symptoms but is being made whole. People often seek cures when what they most want is healing. One can be cured and still not be whole in spirit, attitude, emotion or relationship. And one can be healed and whole while still sick, and still enduring pain.
Medicine, and church, mosque or synagogue communities can each provide a better understanding and path that leads to knowing and living the difference between between being healed and being treated.