Leaning Into Our Pain

A man was pruning his prize roses when a thorn pierced the palm of his hand.  Though the thorn drew his blood, he saw no debris in the wound, so after a quick wash he went on with his gardening.

The next day the man noticed that the cut was red and sore.  Two days later the area was swollen, raw and painful.  He washed his palm with soap and covered it up with a bandage, hoping that the infection would go away.  What the man didn’t know was that a small piece of thorn was imbedded in his palm.  Bacterium from the thorn was causing the wound to fester.  Despite his growing pain and the fiery inflammation, the man kept with his regimen of washing, applying topical ointment and covering the wound with a bandage.  A week later, with the infection climbing up his arm and the pain so great he could no longer use his hand, the man went to the emergency room.  To his shock, the doctor informed him that she had to cut open his palm, explore it for debris, irrigate and clean out the wound.  She told him the procedure would be painful.

The man asked, “Can’t you just give me antibiotics?”

“I’m sorry sir,” the doctor replied, “that would only relieve your symptoms for a time.  If we don’t open you up and clean out the wound, the infection will continue and likely get worse.”  The man hated needles and was wary of additional pain so he asked about alternative treatments.

The doctor looked sympathetically at him and calmly said, “Sir, I understand your concerns.  But you can’t just clean the surface or treat the symptoms and expect to get better.  At this point our only option is to open the wound and clean it from the inside out.”

The man looked distrustfully at the doctor.  The doctor sighed and said, “Sometimes the only way to heal is by experiencing additional pain.  Sometimes I have to hurt to heal.”


If this story was about our souls rather than a thorn in a palm, how many of us could identify with this man?

How many of us have heavy stone tumors lodged deep in our guts?

How many of us are gristled with scar tissue from painful experiences or relationships that we’ve never taken the time process?

How many of us minimize our injuries?  (i.e – covering up a festering wound with a bandage)

How many of us scrub the surface of our lives or treat our symptoms but ignore the underlying problems?

How many of us are nursing wounds, old or fresh, which are poisoning us?

My guess is that there is a simple answer to these questions: all of us have these wounds and no matter how self-aware or intelligent we are, each of us has (at some point) responded with poor self-care.  We buck up and patch ourselves with ineffective home remedies. We do this because we are human, and as such are imperfect and prone to accidents and missteps with ourselves and others.

Here is some difficult wisdom passed down from the ancients across all religions and cultures: to heal we must lean into our pain. 

Have you reached a point where you sense that the only way to heal is to acknowledge your woundedness and courageously journey through the pain?

Dr. Cecily Saunders, the mother of the modern hospice movement, pushed the medical community toward what she called Total Pain Management.  In a time when medicine only treated the physical pain and symptoms of the dying, Dr. Saunders encouraged caregivers to attend to the patients’ emotional and spiritual suffering as well.  By asking the question, “How are you within?” nurses discovered that patients’ pain diminished or disappeared because they talked about their soul pain and they felt their distress was legitimized.

Some pain is obvious, visible, on the surface.  In these cases we know someone is in pain because it alters their posture, we see them grimace or they have a cast or a crutch.  That pain is easier to attend to, easier to ask about and consequently, people in obvious pain are often well-cared for by others.

But what about those of us who have hidden pain like spiritual and emotional suffering?  Who can see that we are hurting?  Who will know that we need help unless we acknowledge our pain?  Many who suffer with soul pain will delay seeking help and healing until the pain is so unbearable that they fall to their knees.

Must we let it go this far?  I believe not.  We have opportunities before us.

If you are suffering with some secret pain or ignoring an emotional/spiritual wound, I encourage you to take a few steps:

  1. Acknowledge you are in pain – name your pain and its source (I like to stand in front of a mirror and say it out loud, then write it down and reflect)
  2. Consider sharing this pain with a trusted and wise friend or mentor or seek professional counseling
  3. Take the time and courage needed to journey through the pain toward healing

If you are in a season of wellness, please be attentive to your friends and loved ones.  Who of them may have a painful wound burrowed deep within them?  You have the opportunity to compassionately ask, “How are you within?”  Once asked, you have a significant and immeasurable opportunity to be a healing presence.  You’ll be amazed at what a powerful balm listening can be.

Praise be to the Lord, to God our Savior, who daily bears our burdens.     Psalm 68:19

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.     Galatians 6:2


For caregivers interested in reading more about being a healing presence or learning how to better ‘diagnose’ spiritual pain, I recommend the following books:

  • The Art of Listening in a Healing Way by James E. Miller
  • The Art of Being a Healing Presence by James E. Miller and Susan C. 
  • The American Book of Living and Dying: Lessons in Healing Spiritual Pain by Richard F. Groves and Henriette Anne Klauser. 

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