C.S. Lewis, Pain, and Timelessness

Among many titles and positions held, C.S. Lewis was a famed British essayist, professor, theologian, philosopher, and novelist. Though he passed in 1963, his works, theories, and insights regarding human nature have lived on and will likely find timeless relevance. Some of his most compelling works center on the ideas of man’s purpose, Christian belief, personal challenge, grief, and pain.

As a young man, a friend gave me a copy of Lewis’ novel The Problem of Pain (1940). What I gathered from reading that text, among so many things, is that pain has a degree of inevitability that no man can escape. Yet over time, I believe I have come to understand that one of Lewis’ greatest conclusions, one that I feel he had hoped his audience would eventually arrive at, hinges on man’s faith in goodness. Though evil may present itself, it will always do so in the presence of good and the opportunity for progress, peace, and self-discovery. Even though pain exists, and despite the fact that it can approach us with utter disregard for our circumstances, it cannot replace or reject the notion that joy can also have a great place in our lives–should we allow.

In furthering my understanding of pain and its existence and roles among human lives, I am constantly drawn to a passage from The Problem of Pain that has helped me undergo self-reflection. This particular passage pertains to the differentiation that man must make between various pains:

Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also more hard to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say ‘My tooth is aching’ than to say ‘My heart is broken.’

In some ways, the unpacking of this quote is fairly simple. In others, it is quite complex and requires patience, empathy, and faith. It is not enough for man to understand that his own pain exists and affects his own being; rather, a man seeking true growth needs to recognize that others experience great pain, too. This is not always evident, though. We can very easily recognize a man in great pain due to a broken bone, a woman affected by a hellacious cancer, a child bruised at the hands of an abusive parent–but it is far more difficult to see the pain of the person struggling to piece their life together following a divorce, a young child attempting to reconcile self-worth amid being bullied and harassed by peers, or a grown adult trying to cope with the death of their parents. If you are privy to these less obvious pains, you may be able to lend some help in the process of recovery and growth. But how often have we gazed at others, particularly those we don’t know well, and thought, “They have everything. They have their life so well orchestrated. It must be nice.” We might even become jealous, judgmental, or awe-struck. Still, we rarely know not the mental pain of those we see from a distance until and if such is revealed outwardly.

This is why we need to be patient, empathetic, and faithful with and to one another. We may see a beautiful family photo hanging above a friend’s fireplace and assume that great peace, love, and understanding exist within that home–and that could well be the case. Still, as no man is immune to physical pain, even the most enlightened, compassionate, loving, and understanding of beings is not exempt of mental anguish. We often hear the phrase, “You never know what someone else is going through,” and there may not be a more accurate and true statement pertaining to the human condition. I guess this is all the more reason to treat one another with sincere compassion and love–but I struggle. I struggle to display empathy because I find that my patience for others can wear thin over time, and this in turn affects my faith in the belief that my efforts will prove fruitful. But what if my efforts to understand and help someone else leave me feeling drained? What if I feel like my patience is getting me nowhere?

I have learned that sometimes I will never know how much of an impact I have had on someone. In other cases, my impact–good, bad, or indifferent–has been made very apparent to me. And here is the kicker: I can affect the impact that I have on understanding, helping, and loving others, but I cannot determine how they will internalize, receive, and ultimately feel about my presence and efforts among their life. So I submit that my relationships with others are not really about me, and I submit that others’ relationships with me are not really about them. In some odd way, relationships seem to be for the benefit of both members, but only if both see fit to serve the other first.

Given these thoughts, maybe the problem of pain is best addressed in that we must live to help alleviate the anguish that others feel and pray that they can and will do the same for us. Maybe we can best help ourselves by helping others and being open to receiving the reciprocal value. Then again, maybe pain and all that it brings is far more complex than that. I guess for now I can rest knowing that I am wrestling with a topic and feeling that I believe deserves great attention.

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