Pain is a solid motivator for change. Without some pain or unease, we may never change much at all.
When there is no pain in our life, we simply go with the flow of our habits – good or bad. It is the usually unexpected upset of pain that causes us to pause, to consider … and in the light of such reflection, to make necessary, even crucial change.
‘Your mother is dying’
A few years back I sat at my mother’s deathbed. Thankfully she recovered, but as I sat grieving over what I was told was inevitable, I experienced considerable existential anxiety.
My mother lived a sedentary life: little exercise, a strong sweet tooth, and a lifetime spend putting others before herself. The consequences of which were now brutally apparent.
I realised that if I didn’t start taking better care of myself, this was my likely future: incapacitated in hospital with a body wearing out early. More importantly, I realised my children would end up sitting where I was, suffering in the face of impending loss.
This awareness was a moment of deeply motivating pain for me.
Since then, I’ve lost some weight and become more active – sufficiently so to make my doctor less anxious about the way my health checks were trending. I don’t always make the right nutrition choices (especially when I’m tired or stressed), but I can honestly say that I’m healthier in my 50s than I was in my 30s and 40s.
The pain of ‘rock bottom’
I’ve also seen the impact of pain as a motivator in those who come to our Salvation Army church with backgrounds in addiction.
Not one of these people, when having their first few alcoholic drinks, thought this would lead to relationship problems, job losses, poor health, violence, abuse, or even imprisonment.
The same is true for those who sought the ecstasy and escape of drug use. No one presented them with a list of long-term consequences and invited ‘informed consent’. This was also a case of going with the flow of what eventually became a habit, and then a soul-destroying prison.
The pain of rock bottom brought motivation for change. When there was no denying the brutal consequences of addiction, they reached out for help. For some, this included reaching out to God, because when life becomes too chaotic to go it alone, the strength of God is truly a saving grace.
I’ve listened to some of these men and women as they’ve described the huge price paid for what started innocently enough: parties with school mates, drinks with the lads after work. A little something to make social situations less awkward. Respite from feelings that are hard for any of us to cope with: embarrassment, disappointment, frustration, loss.
Most wish they could turn back time and tell their younger selves to choose another way. Perhaps to sit a little longer with their social anxiety or painful feelings to find a less destructive way forward, rather than anesthetising the opportunity for learning, change and growth.
‘Blessed are those who mourn’
Our Sunday sermon series this year is a journey through the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5 - 7). At the moment, my husband and I are taking turns preaching on the Beatitudes.
A couple of weeks ago, my husband looked at Jesus’s words: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted,” noting Bible teacher John Stott’s suggestion that ‘it is not the sorrow of bereavement to which Christ refers, but the sorrow of repentance.’
Mourning over negative aspects of our life is undeniably uncomfortable. In such times, my instinct is still to reach for my ‘drugs of choice’ – chocolate, takeaway food, sugary drinks – just as some of my recovering friends are tempted to seek refuge in alcohol, cannabis, methamphetamine. Anything to keep painful feelings at bay.
But we have an alternative. We can allow our mourning to turn us to repentance, a change in our life’s direction. This can help shift us from the discomfort of self-pity and even self-loathing, to the comfort of self-discovery and growth.
Few people voluntarily run towards pain. None of us enjoy the experience of mourning. And yet, if we can lean into these most human of experiences, we are granted the grace of repentance – the fresh beginning that comes from what we might simply describe as ‘wising up’.
Christina Tyson has been a Salvation Army officer (minister) for almost 30 years.For 16 years she was involved in Salvation Army communications, and now works with her husband as pastors of a Salvation Army church and community centre in Newtown, Wellington.