Monday, August 21, 2017

Fearing Pain

Growing up, I was a pretty fearful child. I don't think it was for any profound reason - that was just who I was. I was shy, fearful of social embarrassment. I wasn't too energetic, preferring the safety of sitting on the couch watching sports. I did play a lot of sports, but didn't play anything I wasn't decent at, fearful of causing my team to lose. I also feared pain.

I remember, when I was probably about 8, hearing a story from my dad about his childhood. He was young and playing near a bulldozer that was doing some work and the bulldozer knocked over a hornet's nest. My dad told me he got stung maybe a dozen times and how it was quite painful.

Then one day, near the end of the school year, I was walking to school and a few bees started flying around me. I remembered Dad's story and froze in sheer terror. It probably took me 15 minutes before I could bring myself to take another step (I guess in my kid-brain I thought I was invisible if I didn't move).

Then summer came, and most kids would play outside all summer. Not me. I was so afraid of getting stung by a bee I didn't go outside for more than a few minutes at a time all summer. I was so afraid of, what I thought was, the intense pain of getting stung by a bee that I wouldn't even go outside to play with my friends - too risky!

So what caused my fear of bees to recede (mostly)? I was still very afraid of bees for several years after this even though I eventually mustered the courage to be outdoors. But then something weird happened: I got stung by a bee. And it didn't hurt that much. Needless to say, I felt pretty silly for barricading myself inside my house to avoid what amounted to a pinch.

Now, this admittedly is an example of an extreme and irrational fear of pain from a wimpy kid. But, I think, to a degree, we all live like this. We try to avoid pain at all costs. We barricade ourselves inside our comfy lifestyles and don't go outside our comfort zones - too risky! Part of this is simply human nature - we need to avoid pain because painful things can cause injury or death.

The problem is, as I learned with my fear of bees and many other fears since, the more you focus on the object of your fear, and the greater the extent that you go to evade it, the stronger, and more irrational, your fear becomes. We get insurance for all scenarios, we get the car with the 5-star rating and the beepy, lane-drift thingy, we get a house we can't afford in order to be in the safest, cleanest town, we build large fences so the neighbours can't "spy" on us. None of these are bad in and of themselves but is there a point where we become too obsessed with avoiding discomfort?

My fear of pain continued through my adolescence and into adulthood. In our relationship Julia was the adventurous one suggesting fun things and I was the cautious one complaining that her ideas were too risky (they weren't that risky). Nothing prepares you for watching your wife suffer through and die of cancer, but I certainly wasn't prepared. I wasn't prepared because I had always actively ran from pain and I couldn't run anymore. For most painful episodes you can either mostly avoid them with some effort, or at least they're short. Not so with losing your spouse - you can't escape the pain and suffering and it's not going away.

However, I've learned that I should be thankful for this pain. As James 1:2-4 says, "Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything." Ironically, the anti-Christian philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said something very similar.

Being thankful for pain sounds crazy, but let me explain. The only way to stop fearing pain is to embrace it. The Zen Buddhist meditation practices that are all the rage right now are all about detaching one's mental state from your environment so that pain does not cause thoughts that lead to suffering (this is my understanding - I could be wrong). However, this is just another form of pain avoidance, and it requires you to detach yourself from all the joyful things about your environment as well.

I'm thankful for this unavoidable pain because if it wasn't for it I'd be continuing to look for ways to avoid pain. My only choice is to learn to deal with it. This isn't easy but I am glad to be learning how to do it now so that I can move on with my life not avoiding potentially fulfilling experiences because they may cause pain. Lamentations 3:27 says, "It is good for a man that he should bear the yoke in his youth." I haven't experienced every type of pain, but I can imagine watching your spouse suffer through cancer and die is one of the most painful events one can experience. If I can navigate this, there is not much else I need to fear.

Don't get me wrong, I am still angry at what caused this pain. I am not at peace with the suffering and death Julia had to endure for me to have this "lesson". I don't understand or accept why it couldn't have come through an event that was targeted at me instead. I'm pissed off about that and may always be.

But like Julia, I understand God is teaching me something through the labyrinth of hardship. August 12th would have been Julia's and my 6th wedding anniversary (September 10th is our 10th anniversary being together). On our wedding day we had no idea the pain we were going to experience together. It is something to listen to those promises again now (you can watch our video here). On our anniversaries, Julia (as teachers do) would always make sure we talked about what we'd learned in the last year. One of the biggest things I've learned is to be thankful for the pain that life brings because, tackling it with faith in God, it brings life - real life.


  1. Beautifully written Andy, you have a gift, thank you for sharing.

  2. Pain-avoidance is rampant in our society. Thanks for sharing so honestly and beautifully.

  3. I was thinking of Julia today and praying for you, Andy. Praying you are cloaked in God's peace and love.

    Alyssa Rowley

  4. Thank you Andy. IThis came at the perfect time. I come to this from a different but shared perspective. I had followed the blog but I had never looked at
    at your Julia'!s Pink Pearl speech.Until today I did not know about that organization. I have passed that onto my daughter who has her own journey and without you sharing today, well, you and Julia made a difference.

  5. I need to read your message at least another time, maybe more, there is a lot of heavy content and I process slooww. But, the wedding video, I am all smiles. I think I viewed it before, I do love weddings, (but that is another story) A glimpse of you and your bride getting in to a boat reminded me of our wedding 45 years ago when we left our wedding in a boat. Then the airplane ride, well that was a day later for our honeymoon. The narrative was so sweet and the pictures were delightful. Now I am looking at Julia. Her book of john is right here by the computer. Reminds me to pray for those who love her and also hold on to the anchor of my soul.
    Blessings to you, Andy Kathy Tanner

  6. i appreciate the part about not just only dealing with fear, but embracing it. i had never thought of fear fitting into the verse in james, but i see now how it obviously does. so helpful to read; thank you andy. you are on our hearts and minds often. - glen&nat

  7. And the gift of Julia's life, wisdom and words continues to live on in your words Andy. Sending love.


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