Discerning why it hurts

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By Rev. Debbie Sperry

Pain is something we all experience, particularly physical pain. It might be pain from a splinter, or a stubbed toe, or something bigger like a broken bone or a torn tendon. I would classify those as “bad pain”—pain that results from an injury, or pain that is an indicator of something bigger going on in your body. It’s your body’s way of saying, “Stop! You’re at risk of greater injury! You need a break!” 

Then there’s the good pain, the pain that results from doing things that benefit your body, like sit-ups, going for a run, or trying a new workout routine. You’ve felt that, right? You sign up for and go to the gym, do the first class or see a personal trainer and feel okay doing it. Only the next day you wake up sore and you can barely sit down on the toilet without pain. That pain still hurts, but it’s a reflection of growth and strengthening.

And then there’s the “other pain.” I didn’t even know this pain existed until I was about 30. I was training for a half marathon, and running was a completely new habit. There were days I was sore from the run, but other days when I had rested and was still sore. My inclination was to think, “Oh, I should rest some more,” but the daunting 13-mile task dictated I needed to get up and do my training instead. My body ached and complained, but often around the one-mile marker, everything would sort of loosen up and the pain would dissipate. While it presented as pain like the other two forms, I found the message my body was trying to send was “get up and get moving.” It was the “other pain.” And it was often hard to distinguish which pain I was feeling.

I’ve thought a lot about the types of pain, because not long after my half-marathon training, my mother had her hip replaced, and about two months into her recovery she fell and broke her femur and had to have a new hip with a longer rod put in. Her recovery from those surgeries and her fall was exceedingly painful, and she didn’t heal quickly. She had suffered chronic pain for more than 25 years, and this simply added to her daily suffering. Along the way, one doctor told her, “If it hurts, don’t do it.” While I can understand this perspective for “bad pain”— (if it hurts, your body is telling you to stop), I think it failed to recognize the broader perspective, that there are other types of pain. Some of her pain was likely her body telling her to get up and move. And some of her pain was consequentially her body saying, “It was good you moved, you stretched and strengthened your muscles, here’s some pain that goes with that.” And, in the midst of it, those types of pain were hard to distinguish from the bad pain. Sadly, the doctor’s advice, however well-intentioned, led to greater inactivity for my mother, which only exacerbated her physical problems. 

And now, as I think about pain, I think about the pain I am hearing from colleagues and parishioners and from society in general due to the pandemic. I wonder if it wouldn’t benefit us to try and discern which pain we’re experiencing. There’s no doubt we are hurting. We are stressed, tired, overworked, lonely, frustrated, and angry. While it all hurts, I don’t think it’s all bad pain; I think there might be more nuance to it than that. We’re hurting in different ways. Many clergy are feeling bad pain. Their bodies and spirits are telling them “Stop! You need a break! You’re at risk of (greater) injury!” The work of creating, recreating, pivoting, learning new skills and not being able to be present with people in the way clergy know and love has wreaked havoc on us—physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

At the same time, many of our congregants are hurting too. Many for similar reasons in their own profession, but also many from the lack of movement in the church. They aren’t worshipping, studying, or serving in the ways they have in the past. Many are far less active than they used to be and their whole self is aching, telling them, “Get up and do something.” But with restrictions and closures to protect the church and public health, they simply can’t. So their bodies, hearts and spirits continue to cry out in pain. 

And then adjacent to that, some of our churches have figured out new ways to do ministry. They are moving in new ways, and experiencing their own pain—good pain, but pain nonetheless—pain that praises their efforts to get up and move, to risk and try new things despite the discomfort that comes from that.

And in the midst of all that pain, the challenge becomes listening well to our individual and corporate bodies to identify just what type of pain it is so we can find the right solution. For those of us with bad pain, we need rest, we need time to recover, we need a slower pace. For those with other pain, we need places for connection and community where we can serve and feel useful. And for others still, those with good pain, we need to keep at it, practicing those new routines until they feel more fluid, until our bodies have adapted. 

This is not an easy journey. The pain doesn’t self-identify. We have to be moving and listening in ways that give us healthy discernment. It’s also challenging because we are in vastly different places on this journey. Sometimes our personal, individual pain is different from the pain we feel as part of the community called church. Those who are aching to move are often anxious for someone to lead them at exactly the time their assigned leader needs quality R&R. 

I don’t have a perfect answer or much of any answer for going forward, only maybe to start with simple practices that aren’t too taxing, ones that can help evaluate the type of pain you’re having, and more nuanced reflection, not expecting everyone to be in the same category or in need of the same solution. Maybe it’s sharing our truths—the pain we have in our hearts, minds, and bodies—and creating space for others to do the same.


Rev. Debbie Sperry serves as pastor of Wenatchee First United Methodist Church in Wenatchee, Washington.

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