Numbed Out

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Have you ever caught yourself saying or thinking things like this?

The news stresses me out too much. I’m not going to watch it anymore.

I can’t think about that problem. It’s too big for me, and I’ve got enough of my own stuff to handle.

Man, this has been a day. I need ___________ (food,  binge-watching, a substance) to help me relax.

Being close to people always ends in pain. I’d rather be alone.

I’ll go ahead and confess that I’ve had each one of those thoughts at one time or another.

None of us likes to hurt or feel pain, but numbing out has become an American obsession. It’s reflected in shelves full of pain relievers, the way we shelter our kids from adversity, and how quickly we turn to entertainment to dodge or dull our pain. There are times when all those choices may be appropriate, but we’re a people (I’m person) who too often chooses numbness over pain.

Pain has a purpose.

In his book Where is God When It Hurts?, Philip Yancey uses the physical disease leprosy to show us that pain can be a gift. People with leprosy lose feeling in their extremities. Their hands, feet, nose, ears and eyes become numb. The tissue damage that’s symptomatic of leprosy isn’t caused directly by the disease. Instead, tissue damage happens because there’s no feeling to let a person know that they’re damaging themselves. For example, one boy with leprosy lost a finger because of turning a key in a sticky lock. When the key wouldn’t turn, he just kept pushing, not realizing that the metal was lacerating his skin. Pain would have kept the boy from injuring his finger beyond repair.

Other physical diseases also prohibit pain, and Yancey says, “Insensitivity to pain dooms such people to lives of constant peril.”

Emotional pain is the same. It’s an indicator that’s something’s wrong or that something has been lost. Although it’s not pleasant and is sometimes downright devastating, pain lets us know that losses and evils like death, divorce, financial ruin, racism, wandering children and sexism are not part of God’s original plan. These things, and many others, are the problems of our broken world.

Pain points to our problem.

When we turn away from pain, blocking it complete from our lives, we actually miss out. Tender hearts feel pain by definition. Numbed out hearts don’t feel, so they can’t:

  • Solve problems
  • Empathize with others
  • Connect through relationship
  • Feel joy either

Numbing may seem like a solution, but it only works temporarily and it brings greater consequences down the line. One is the absence of joy. Jerry Sittser, in his exquisite book A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss, tells the excruciating story of the year after the loss of his wife, mother, and child in a crash caused by a drunk driver. At the end of the book, he says,”Yet the grief I feel is sweet as well as bitter. I still have a sorrowful soul; yet I wake up every morning joyful, eager for what the new day will bring. Never have I felt as much pain as I have in the last three years; yet never have I experienced as much pleasure in simply being alive and living an ordinary life. Never have I felt so broken; yet never have I been so whole…. What I once considered mutually exclusive– sorrow and joy, pain and pleasure, death and life– have become parts of a greater whole. My soul has been stretched.”

If we’re to make a difference in our world, we have to engage our hearts fully in both pain and joy, so that we can connect with the people we want to help.

In the series that I’m doing to develop tender hearts and strong voices, you’ve heard the four steps.

  1. Listen.
  2. Feel.
  3. Do.
  4. Speak.

In my Christian circles, I believe feelings have gotten a bad rap. Yes, it’s true that “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.” (Jeremiah 17:9) But it’s equally true that God created us with emotions–the whole range including pain– that are meant to be gifts.

In the “feel” part of the series, we’ll talk about how to leverage emotions rather than being led by them. Next week I’ll write about God’s emotions, so please pray for me as I study!

How about you? How do you process both the gift and curse of your feelings?

Note: I don’t want to leave those adrift who are currently in deep pain or feeling like I’ve minimized your suffering here. In the year after my friend Linda died from breast cancer, the two books I quoted in the post, Where Is God When It Hurts? and A Grace Disguised were a life-line to me in my grief. They are my most highly recommended and most often given when people I love are in pain. Yancey’s book is more of a theological textbook, though it’s easy to read. Sittser’s book is a first-hand account. It looks unflinchingly at grief, but it’s full of hope even though it’s not a bit sugar-coated. Both were exactly what my heart needed–truth and understanding– as I grieved my friend.

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Comments

  1. Today I heard something that really opened my eyes when I opened your email. EXHALE – this is something I need to do asap – sometimes I think all I am doing is running around holding my breath trying to make it to the next thing – I am almost 50 years old – I have been a single mom for 20 years – my last child Zane is at home and he turns 12 tomorrow (July 4). Zane is the youngest of 3 children – my son DJ (28) is married and has 3 children, my daughter Savannah (21) is in a relationship and has 3 children and due to have twins by September – WOW I am going to have 8 grandchildren. I spend most of my time taking care of my son Zane – he has 4 forms of juvenile arthritis, 2 GI disorders, and Autism/SPD – he plays wheelchair basketball and wheelchair tennis, plus we homeschool. In addition to taking care of him, I am taking care of my Aunt she is 83 (stage 4 kidney failure), helping my parents who are both 78 ( diabetics and dementia), my sister Janet (57) downs syndrome with dementia…so as you can see I have a lot on my plate especially when everyone lives in different towns – so some days I am driving about 250 miles a day round trip. I can honestly say that my faith is what has kept me going – but some days when I get home and sit down – I EXHALE and think how did I do that….I think I need to EXHALE more – I signed up for your bible study – I am in a group with other moms – We are the BASKETBALL MOMS – we get together for to support each other because we all have so much on our plate besides just taking care of our children. Thank you for all that you do in your newsletter and have a blessed day.

  2. I definitely hear what you are saying. There is some kind of good in feeling negative feelings. When I become overwhelmed, panicky, or just generally uncomfortable, it always means that something in my life is off kilter. Those feelings help me to look around and take stock of what is going on so I can fix it. Though I am guilty of trying to numb myself from the painful or mundane in life, it rarely works. It usually just leaves me with another problem to try and handle.
    All too often, when all else fails, I find a nap should be my first step : )

    • Love it! I think that a nap is sometimes the most spiritual thing we can do, facing a problem strengthened by sleep!

  3. This is such a good lesson for me and explains how I’ve been feeling. Overwhelmed in my situation and yet having peace in God, sad with the choices of my husband and still finding joy in knowing that Christ is intervening for me . Fear in the divorce and yet boldly knowing that our God will work it all for his glory. That all my pain and suffering is part of my journey of more Christ in me . I think I am ready to write my story. Thank you for your always encouraging words and teachings. I pray that the Holy Spirit will reveal to you all the words and wisdom you need for your study preparation.

    • Thank you for your prayers, Camille! I prayed for you too before I hit send on this reply. Much love to you!

  4. Well considering two of my devotions this morning that I received via email are about numbing, I guess this was the message I needed to read. I know I have numbed myself for the past few years. Becoming an empty nester and several other life changes left me at a point that I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t realize until recently that although you’re happy for someone and very excited to see them grow, there is a sense of loss that needs to be mourned. And I stuffed it and never more dealt with it because I thought it was ridiculous to mourn a child that is becoming an adult and is having a great life. There’s nothing wrong with mourning the sense of loss you feel though when your role as a mother totally shift into a different stage. I now see that and I am grateful. By the way I am very much enjoying your book Exhale. And if you just happen to be in Greensboro on August 15, we are having a community house party at Saint Francis Episcopal Church for Carry 117. Yes God is good and it did worked out and I didn’t need to sweat it. Thanks again for everything. Eva

    • Eva, I’m so glad that God provided everything that was needed for your event!

      I know exactly what you mean about mourning the end of in-the-house mothering. Your point is such a great insight and important. I hadn’t thought of it, but I’m in the same boat as you! Sometimes we numb (maybe especially when we’re reforming perfectionists?) when the combination of emotions is too messy. I like everything, including my feelings, to fit into nice, neat boxes. It’s hard to hold both the celebration over your child’s life and the grief over the loss of a season at the same time. You’re so right.

      I remember one of our podcast guests who is a grief counselor, and she said, “You can’t bury grief alive. It might work temporarily, but eventually grief will claw it’s way out.” That’s been great food for thought for me. Better to deal with grief immediately in healthy ways than to delay dealing with it. (I have this picture of Zombie Apocalypse in my head. Long half-dead grief is nasty!)