Session 9: Growing through pain
In this session, we will look at whether it’s possible to use the suffering and struggle we experience as a resource for our own personal growth.
The song recalls the escape of Bonnie Prince Charlie after his defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1746 and his followers’ belief that there was hope even in defeat.
A prayer to say together:
you knew what it was like to feel defeated by suffering
but out of it you emerged stronger than before.
Help us to learn from every situation that confronts us.
May the winds and waves which others feel may swamp us
be for us the pathway to new discoveries.
Carry us forward through every experience that threatens defeat
into a new hope for the future.
In the name of your Son, Jesus.
Each person should take about a minute to give their name and describe someone suffering in some way who they admire.
Of Mary Craig’s four sons, Paul suffered from gargoylism and Nicky from mongolism. In her book, Blessings, she describes how she enabled the experience to become a creative one.
When I finally stopped feeling sorry for myself, I found myself beginning to think deeply about the whole problem of grief and suffering in our lives. More and more I was convinced that, though suffering was itself negative, it could very easily destroy. On the other hand it could be used positively, for growth. It was, in fact, the only means of emotional growth, the route from winter to spring. ‘Your pain,’ wrote Kahlil Gibran, in ‘The Prophet’, ‘is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding. Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.’ That seemed to me to reach the heart of the matter. I knew that, in my own case, however hard I had been trying to come to terms with the tragedy, I had in effect been shutting out the pain, trying to deaden my awareness of it, allowing a rock-hard shell to form and insulate me from it … Building up the shell was an answer, but in the end it was a rotten answer; and until that shell could be smashed, there was no hope of personal growth.
It was all a question now of learning to take this new pain into myself so that it could become creative. To do that, I should have to face the facts head on, hiding nothing, neither exaggerating nor playing down. To see my situation exactly as it was, to go forward from there, that was the secret.
Inevitably that could only be a beginning, but it was a good one … the land ahead is unknown, and the roads are all uncharted. ‘Here be dragons’ a-plenty, but the worst enemy, that composite of self-delusion and self-pity, has been identified, and at least some of its power to destroy has gone.
Some possibilities for discussion:
- Is there anything in this account that rings bells with you?
- In what ways do you think suffering can ‘very easily destroy’?
- ‘Building up the shell was an answer, but in the end it was a rotten answer.’ Can protecting yourself from pain sometimes be appropriate? Or is it always a ‘rotten answer’?
- Mary Craig suggests that letting herself really feel the pain was the pathway to a new beginning. Is this true for you?
Making space for reflection – Matthew 4.1-11.
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”’
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you,” and “On their hands, they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”’ Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”’
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”’ Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
(Invite a member of the group to read out the passage or if you would like to hear the author reading these himself follow this link
One value of a group like this is that it offers a chance to step back for a while from the routine demands of our lives. Such stepping back helps puts things in perspective. I remember the broadcaster Frank Topping once saying that at times of stress, he would go for thirty seconds in his mind’s eye to a lovely peaceful beach on the west coast of Scotland. When he came back mentally into the hurly burly of the studio, he was much more relaxed and effective. We could all benefit from learning techniques like that! If you try it, make sure you really go there – hear the sounds, smell the smells!
But there are times when longer periods of distancing can also help. They not only defuse any tension, they also provide an opportunity to reflect on what is going on under the surface of our lives and what we can learn from what we’re experiencing. When Jesus took time out in the wilderness, he hoped his reflections on his life so far would help him discover what God wanted him to do with the rest of it. He needed to work out what sort of caring he should be offering God’s people.
Perhaps one temptation we experience as carers is to look for unhelpful short cuts and quick fixes. There’s the deep longing of most of us that the person we care for suddenly recover – a longing that’s no less powerful because it’s unlikely or impossible; there’s the more superficial day-to-day temptation to be a bit slapdash or hurried in our caring so that we can get on more quickly with something else; and in between there’s a whole range of ways in which we’re tempted to escape from the demands of our situation. The suggestion that Jesus might turn stones into bread not only offered a quick end to the hunger of fasting; if he’d been able regularly to do it, it would have been a quick way to people’s hearts, a way to avoid more costly but more profound ways of revealing God’s love of them. But Jesus rejected it – it wasn’t God’s way.
The second temptation Jesus faced was to prove himself. If he were to be saved from harm when he hurled himself from the pinnacle of the temple, there would be no doubt he was somebody very special. A much more effective and immediate way of establishing his credentials than the hard grind of daily loving. All of us want recognition, we want to be valued. As carers, we want the person we’re looking after to appreciate us and one of the hardest kinds of caring is when the person concerned is not capable of expressing that kind of gratitude. And when they can but don’t, it can hurt. Most of us also want to be recognised for what we’re doing by others, family members, neighbours, fellow church-members. It may be tempting to do or say something that will provoke that kind of recognition yet we know, as Jesus did, that the true motivation for our caring must be to love the one cared for, not gather accolades for ourselves.
In the third temptation Jesus was offered all the kingdoms of the world. But this would be at the cost of doing things Satan’s way. ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only him’, Jesus tells Satan. ‘I want to do things God’s way.’ ‘Doing things God’s way’ means something different for each person. But we need to be careful not to think it necessarily implies continuous self-sacrifice. As we saw in session two, God’s will for us is that we care for ourselves as well as others.
After that, the devil left him. But the way Jesus dealt with his various temptations had helped him grow into an understanding of what his role should be. His standing back for a while gave him the chance to use the thoughts and feelings he was having to move him forward into a clearer awareness of himself. His desert experience made him a stronger person. We may have very different temptations from Jesus. Our reactions to the situation we’re in are going to be different from anyone else’s. But taking time to reflect on them can make us stronger.
It can be tempting not to bother. The process requires energy that may be in short supply. It requires being disciplined enough to find the time, also something we may not have much of. It may be painful as we break through the shells we’ve built into our psyches and discover feelings and motivations of which we may be far from proud. But the result of doing it will be to make us, as it made Jesus, stronger, more aware of ourselves and therefore of what we are able to offer others. We’ll find the resources to enable us to avoid unhelpful short cuts in our caring, to manage without constant affirmation from others for what we’re doing and to be open to God in a way that means we do things his way. And we may well discover, as Jesus did, that one result of our courage in facing these issues is that ‘angels come and wait on us’.
Some possibilities for discussion:
- What kinds of temptations do those who care for others have to deal with?
- Jesus used his time in the wilderness to discover who he was meant to be. What is our caring teaching us about ourselves?
- Is it important to stand back occasionally and gather your feelings and thoughts? How can you make time for such reflection? What could you do in the coming days to find time for it?
Margery Williams’ story The Velveteen Rabbit tells of a toy rabbit that becomes real as it loves and is loved by the Boy whose toy he is. The story emphasises that this happens through, and because of, the rough and tumble of sharing the Boy’s life. Here is a key section:
‘What is REAL?’ asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. ‘Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?’
‘Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’
‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.’
Some possibilities for discussion:
- How is the caring you are doing changing you?
- Do you feel you’re able to be ‘real’ with the person you’re caring for? And with others?
Preparing for the next session
Now is the time for anyone in the group to mention anything going on in their lives that they are finding difficult. When there has been time for everyone who wishes to speak, a silence follows, during which each quietly prays for the members of the group who have just spoken. Anyone who wishes to say a prayer out loud can also do so.
Leader: Jesus said: ‘I came that they may have life, and may have it abundantly’
as we pray for each other, you meet us in our need.
Grant us the resources we need for our caring
and surround us with your love.
‘The LORD is near to the broken-hearted, and saves the crushed in spirit’
Now go round the group in turn and each person mention the name of someone they are caring for. Follow each mention by a long enough silence for that person to be prayed for silently by the group before the next person speaks. Then all pray together: (OR “All” could be inserted before the prayer.)
you promise to sustain all whose lives are hard.
Grant those for whom we care your strength and your peace.
May God bless us all till we meet again.
To take away
‘Help me in my search for reality. Be real, really yourself, really present, with me.
And shine a torch on me that I may see myself as I truly am.’
Jim Cotter, a writer and theologian who in May 1994 experienced a sudden breakdown, addressing his carers.