Positivity in Pain?

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In the past two weeks of pain, more pain, and new and improved manifestations of pain taking over my life, I have desperately tried to hold on to positivity. It has been a mostly failed experiment. I do have positive days. Most days hold at least a few positive rays of sunshine, peaking through the cracks of sadness and gloom. But there are also some days composed solely of sorrow, crying, and mourning of loss.

There are many real reasons to mourn. Cancelled plans (important plans). The actual physical pain. The exhaustion and inability to complete necessary tasks. People close to me suffering. Too much time to remember all that I have lost and all that I might lose in the future.

In the midst of this, I keep having the same thoughts. Why can’t I stay positive on the bad days? What is wrong with me? Why can’t I just pull myself together?

And then, a sigh of relief, because I don’t think anything is wrong with me. And I have come to a freeing conclusion. For most people, it is impossible, unrealistic, and un-human to maintain positivity 100% of the time. Yes, I really believe this, and let me explain. I know this is in direct contrast to what most people will tell you. You probably won’t hear this from your therapist or life coach. You won’t read this in self-help books. You will meet that one annoying person who always seems happy even when everything is wrong and tells you to do the same (I always wonder if their happiness is real or fake?). But I am convinced that constant positivity is in direct contrast to who we are as humans living out life on this broken earth.

Covering the pain and hurt of life in the glitter, sequins, and bows of forced positivity is a false hope. It truly doesn’t help to tell yourself that everything is ok when it is not. When we call bad things good, we are living out a delusion, lying to ourselves, faking a positivity that does not align with reality.

We don’t laugh at funerals. We don’t clap when the team doesn’t score. We don’t thank those who wrong us. We don’t smile in the face of trauma or hurt. Pleasure in pain is found only by masochists and sociopaths. When Jesus saw Lazarus dead in the tomb, he wept even though he knew Lazarus would soon be alive and all would be redeemed in the end. He wept in the face of death and suffering just as he would later celebrate when all was restored.

I still believe the verses that say to give thanks in all circumstances and rejoice in the midst of suffering. But rejoicing that happens in suffering is not the same as the rejoicing that occurs in times of prosperity. The thanks we give in trial is heavier than the thanks we give in times of plenty. We rest in hope that the solemn thanks and quiet rejoicing found in suffering will soon turn to the celebration and dancing of a new and joyous season that is yet to come.

In the meantime, while I wait for this new season, I am calling chronic pain and all manner of suffering for what they are – terrible, dreadful, horrible things. And should we not cry in the face of what is dreadful? We recognize that we pass through seasons of life, and that each requires a different response: “there is a time for everything, a season for every activity under the heavens” (Ecclesiastes 3).

….a time to weep and a time to laugh,

a time to mourn and a time to dance…

a time to search and a time to give up,

a time to keep and a time to throw away,

a time to tear and a time to mend

a time to be silent and a time to speak….

a time for war and a time for peace… (Ecclesiastes 3)

A time to recognize the horror of our pain, and a time to move forward in hope.

Positivity and happiness are not proper responses to the sadness of life. I am convinced that it is not until we have recognized and believed the reality of the bad that we can eventually find the good. So many counselees I speak with begin in denial that they are actually depressed, actually hurt, and that their life is actually a horrible mess. They think if they ignore the bad, and push away the negative feelings, maybe it will go away. They gloss over the pain, sugar-coat the reality, and argue that so many others have it worse off so how can they complain? I always tell them that their suffering matters. I always tell them that the world will do everything it can to take away and diminish our suffering, so we must not do the same to ourselves. I always tell them that they must feel and experience the emotions as they are and not as they want them to be before they can ever hope to move to a new place.

When we suffer, we must first wade through the raging waters of hurt before we can finally reach the comfort and good of a peaceful shore.

As we fight and push towards the shore, the positivity begins to feel less forced. The positivity becomes real and no longer fake. We battle forward, knowing a new season lies ahead. I refuse to call a season of bad good, but I also know it will not remain bad forever. I press forward until the glimmer of light becomes a huge ray of sunshine. I do all I can to get out of the funk and move on to a better place.

How do I get out of the funk? I listen to good music and read an inspiring book. I pray and I find Scripture that makes me say, “yes that’s me!” I write depressing laments and cry while I do it. I eat dark chocolate, treat myself to Starbucks, and eat Chipotle instead of making dinner. I tell someone all my woes and listen to the woes of another. I remember I am not alone in the darkness and over and over remind myself that one day it will be light.

So today, I still sit in sorrow, but I also raise a glass to the hope of new seasons of life. The darkness will not last forever. Of this I am sure.

13 Comments

  1. I am sitting with you today in the midst of a setback as well. I’m thankful today is a day that I can sit and take care of myself. Tomorrow and Friday, not so much…but I will deal with those days when they come. Praying that you can feel the support of friends near and far. You are not alone. The darkness will not last.

  2. Oh what a wonderfully written post and so accurate!

    “The thanks we give in trial is heavier than the thanks we give in times of plenty.” This really strikes me. I have not heard it better said. There is a difference between pushing through the tough times and learning the lessons that await us, lessons we can be thankful for and being happy/positive. You are 100% correct that these are not the same.

    And in order to feel real happiness, we have to accept and appreciate life’s pain – physical and emotional. We cannot have one without the other.

    I am sorry that you are feeling so lousy. I hope it lifts enough soon so you can enjoy a new season. It will happen.

    I am a huge Chipotle fan myself…excellent comfort food!

    Hang in there!

    1. Yes, it is hard to believe that giving thanks in all circumstances is possible. I can believe it is possible if the giving thanks looks different in suffering than it does in blessing. It is different – heavier was the only word I could think to describe it.

      Thank you!

  3. I echo what sarcoidosissoldier said. About the Chipotle, that is.

    Interesting thought about Jesus mourning for Lazarus. What always strikes me about that passage is that Jesus’ closest friends don’t quite understand he is the resurrection and life and what that means. Re-reading it, it definitely seems like Jesus is just crying for Lazarus. What a powerful message about mourning, and a good reminder not to be in denial about how we really feel.

    Great article. The honesty is refreshing.

    1. Thank you so much. Yes it struck me as I was thinking through that story as well. It just hit me that at first glance Jesus had nothing to mourn about because he knew it would end up ok. But, he did mourn… He mourned because that is what you do when tragedy and suffering strikes. A powerful picture.

  4. As usual you have a way of expressing things I have thought in a much more eloquent way than I can! I totally agree. Happy all the time is not realistic. You should be allowed to feel your emotions, good or bad. It is when we wallow in our emotions for long periods of time that it gets to be a concern!

    Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. (‭Proverbs‬ ‭3‬:‭5-6‬ NIV)
    I just am trying to remind myself that ‘my path’ and ‘His path’ aren’t always on the same road!
    I will hold you in my prayers!

    1. Yes I completely agree – we need to find that line between recognizing and experiencing the pain/emotions, but still not wallowing. It is a fine line that I often toe with 🙂

      It is hard to not lean on my own understanding. A good reminder.

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