"Miracles are never wrought without prayer, felt need, and faith...they are the natural result of the Messiah's presence among men."
Bible Dictionary

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Flavors of Pain

I recently read a book.
To anyone who knows me that shouldn't be much of a surprise. I read a lot, and this was one of six books I've finished since school got out, plus the Unbroken audiobook (does that count as reading?). However, this book is worth mentioning because unlike the entertainment-value fantasy series I usually read, there was a lot of substance to this one. It is called The Alchemist, a allegorical story of a young man who loses everything, and then gains it back with interest in pursuit of his "Personal Legend". According to the story, the Personal Legend is what each of us has at the core of our being. It's our unshakable desire to achieve "something" in life. We may not know what it is, or think it to be impossible, but it is there nonetheless. There are a lot of takeaways from the story, and I fully recommend it, (it's only about 100 pages!) but one idea really struck me as something to write about. There is one character who knows what his Personal Legend is and has the means to achieve it, yet for whatever reason, doesn't. Do we see this in our lives? Are there opportunities for us to progress that pop up, ready for us to take advantage of, that we instead let pass by? There are plenty of reasons why we let this happen, but they all have one commonality: they are excuses, and one of the challenges we all have in life is figuring out how to overcome them.

There are plenty of things to be afraid of in life, but I've thought about it a lot and have come to believe all of our fears can be summed up in one word - pain. We fear things that hurt us. Things that have hurt us in the past, or might in the future. And sometimes it sure seems like life is out to get us - in 17 different ways at once, with contingency plans A, B, and C ready to go as we move past one trial just to face the next. That's often how I feel, but I'd have to say that one of the aspects of myself I'm most proud of is my ability to press on despite the onslaught of challenges. As this is my blog, I thought I'd share a few of these personal painful challenges and the only way that I know how to deal with them. 

Physical pain

Spinal cord injuries aren't clean afflictions by any means. There are often a lot of fun little side effects ready to manifest themselves when the paralysis itself isn't enough. Like nerve pain. I live with constant pins and needles in my feet and neck. The intensity varies from invisibility to unbearability (not a word), but aside from taking medication, all I can do is grin and bear it. It's amazing what we can get used to and subconsciously cope with, given enough time.

Pain of loss

Some pain, however, can't be pushed aside, no matter how much time has passed. The loss of function in almost all of my body is one of those pains. Similar to physical pain, the severity of this pain waxes and wains, but never goes away entirety. I don't think I can even express through words the intense agony this pain inflicts, and the misery it leaves behind. I can't possibly describe the resulting feelings of embarrassment and inadequacy. Paralysis has affected every aspect of my life. There are no days off, and no relief from the immobilizing vicegrip that has settled over me. This pain...is excruciating.

Pain of missing out

FOMO. Fear Of Missing Out. It's a real thing, and it's ravaging through a college town near you, keeping scores of young twenty-somethings awake well past a decent bedtime. Except for me! I'm incredibly responsible, possessing copious amounts of fortitude that allows me to throw off the chains of immaturity that binds my weaker peers. Knowing the great importance of keeping a sharp schedule, I get to bed early! Every night. Because getting to bed isn't something I can actually do on my own. It takes assistance, and assistance is a job, and jobs operate on a schedule. A schedule that means when it comes to late night activities, I miss out. Of course, I also miss out on lots of nature excursions, sporting events, and active games. These are things that I used to absolutely love participating in. Heck, everyone loves being able to independently go about their passions. It's part of life, part of being human! Except now...it's not.

I have a great appreciation for the things I am able to accomplish and experience despite my challenges. I'm currently independently working a great job where my coworkers appreciate my abilities and I'm planning on moving back to Provo next Fall to finish school. I have a great support system that is dedicated to go to bat for me and make life possible and better. I wrote a whole post on this awhile back (the one with the memes). But this post is about pain. And this section is about the pain of missing out. That's the pain that twists in my gut when I'm alone, not able to join in with everyone else. It's the brief flash of pain that accompanies the realization, in the cases that I can attend the activity, that things will have to be done differently for me, or I'll have to be in different seating. The pain of having missed the opportunity to serve a mission, and do a hundred other things. In those moments the good things don't seem as good. The voice that whispers, "What if you had never gone to that tumbling gym?" seems deafening. And the pain seems to consume everything else.

So there's three pains that I deal with constantly. Really I probably covered more than that with the way I got rolling in that last section, but either way that's enough from me. I started thinking about all this after reading this part of The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher. (So maybe there's more than just entertainment value in my books) :

"Growing up is all about getting hurt. And then getting over it. You hurt. You recover. You move on. Odds are pretty good you’re just going to get hurt again. But each time, you learn something.
Each time, you come out of it a little stronger, and at some point you realize that there are more flavors of pain than coffee. There’s the little empty pain of leaving something behind—graduating, taking the next step forward, walking out of something familiar and safe into the unknown. There’s the big, whirling pain of life upending all of your plans and expectations. There’s the sharp little pains of failure, and the more obscure aches of successes that didn’t give you what you thought they would. There are the vicious, stabbing pains of hopes being torn up. The sweet little pains of finding others, giving them your love, and taking joy in their life as they grow and learn. There’s the steady pain of empathy that you shrug off so you can stand beside a wounded friend and help them bear their burdens.
And if you’re very, very lucky, there are a very few blazing hot little pains you feel when you realize that you are standing in a moment of utter perfection, an instant of triumph, or happiness, or mirth which at the same time cannot possibly last—and yet will remain with you for life.
Everyone is down on pain, because they forget something important about it: Pain is for the living. Only the dead don’t feel it.
Pain is a part of life. Sometimes it’s a big part, and sometimes it isn’t, but either way, it’s part of the big puzzle, the deep music, the great game. Pain does two things: It teaches you, tells you that you’re alive. Then it passes away and leaves you changed. It leaves you wiser, sometimes. Sometimes it leaves you stronger. Either way, pain leaves its mark, and everything important that will ever happen to you in life is going to involve it in one degree or another."

We all have different kinds of pain in our life. There's rejection and betrayal. Failure and embarrassment. Loneliness hurts. And so does transgression. But no matter what our flavor of pain it is, it does make us stronger. Pain changes us, and helps us progress through life - if we have the courage to continue fighting for our Personal Legend.

Sometimes though, when the pain is severe, the promise of future betterment doesn't mean much. The hurt, isolation, and loneliness can be intense. And in those moments, the only tried and true successful strategy I've found is reliance on the only person who has perfect empathy for us. It's my Savior, Jesus Christ, and through the Atonement he has literally felt it all. All of the pains I have and will experience, as well as yours. The strength that this reality can bring is very real, and has helped me through many dark times. I've been through a lot of challenges and will continue to fight through more, but upon reflection, with the perspective Christ's Atonement provides, I've realized how much that pain has helped me develop into a better and stronger person.

"And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people...and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities."
Pain is an interesting thing to deal with. We are all racked by it, but often have a hard time expressing to others the depths of our anguish. Personally, I often worry that the alien nature of my pain to others, along with its constant presence, makes it hard for me to really connect with others. I wear my pain like a suit of armor, and I can be hard for me to let my guard down and really admit how hard things can be for me. One thing that I've discovered however, is the ability to truly emphasize with those who are going through similar trials. Empathy is a rewarding and therapeutic feeling to impart. And finally, I've found that when I do put myself out there and share my pain with others, it's always a positive experience and I'm blessed with an outpouring of support. Thanks to you all for helping me keep going. Here's to relying on the Savior for the strength to overcome pain, and courageously continuing on our life's journey to find our Personal Legend, and with it, true joy and happiness.


  1. This was just what I needed to hear tonight. Thanks for sharing such great thoughts!

  2. Wonderful post, Stephen, thank you for sharing. I was happy to see you read and enjoyed The Alchemist, it continues to be one of my favorite books and I revisit it often for inspiration. You have a magical way of capturing humanity in your words. And your vulnerability and willingness to invite the world in to see things from your perspective is an invaluable reminder for all of us. Keep posting and keep pushing.

  3. I'm really amazed by your ability to go through this trial and find the good and the uplifting bits that are hidden within. I sometimes wonder how things would have been if one of us up there on that platform with you had tripped you as you jumped off and you had landed differently. One thing that I am sure of is that you have inspired and helped others as you courageously live every day and make the best of what you have been given.

  4. I feel so honored to know you and what you stand for. You are truly an inspiration for all those that know you and even to those that don't, because of your patience in trails, your hope and your faith.
    keep on fighting, keep on hoping and keep the faith; miracles happen but in the Lord's time.
    Love you Stephen; you are always in our thoughts and prayers.
    Senora Taft

  5. You don't know me, Stephen, but my son Mark was with you at the tumbling gym that night and apparently jumped into the foam pit just before you. He has expressed many times to me remorse about how things went and how things could have been different if he had made another choice or done something - anything differently. I just read your post here about pain and I'm so moved by the honesty and vulnerability of your post. And how telling the truth has the power to inspire others to tell their truth. I appreciate your expressions of how universal pain is and the role it plays in our growth and humanity. Yet yours is yours and is unique. Thank you for this little window to your reality, it has broadened my perspective and opened my heart. I find myself sitting her at my computer softly sobbing. I'm just so moved by your expressions here. May your life's blessings be as specific and unique as you express your pain to be, Stephen. With sincere respect and love,
    McKell Berrett Scanlan

  6. I saw your profile on the BYU Newsletter. Thank you for sharing your thoughts! This was extremely helpful to read. I was in a car accident a few years ago and still have lingering problems because of it (though only a small measure of what you're experiencing), and all of those pains you listed above can be really hard sometimes, but you're right - empathy from the Savior and from others and towards others helps a lot. Congratulations on Graduating! Thanks for sharing your story and being an example to even strangers. :)

  7. Stephen,
    THanks so much for this post. I've been thinking also about pain. I love your insight here. There are some things to learn from having pain that can't be controlled. The first thing like you said is to recognize that we are afraid of pain past, present and future yes. And those of us who have chronic disease and pain are left to fight against the hopelessness of having a life full of pain. Second is to realize that we have felt the type of pain that others feel and because of it, we can be there when they feel alone. That doesn't feel like an important job, or one that we volunteer for, but when we realize that after the atonement, this was the principle reason the Savior came down to earth, it makes it feel more important.

    One day, when I was observing my pain and breathing to carefully try to not wish my life away, I realized that I CAN learn and do the things that the Lord wants me to do on this earth with pain even though they aren't what I expected them to be. I can learn empathy and charity and if that is all I learn that may be exactly what I was sent here to do.