…the parched land shall become a pool, and the thirsty lands springs of water…(Isaiah 35:7)

The Meaning of Pain

Telling the Story

By Rex Goode


Xyla Faye Kelley

Xyla Faye Kelley

This month is the anniversary of my dear mother’s passing. She died April 6, 2000 of pancreatic cancer. I miss her very much and will always remember the lessons she taught me and the great friend she was to me.

I know that a lot of people would say that a mother should be a mother and not a friend, but I liked it that she was both. She was definitely a mom when she needed to be, but we did have such good times. She was funny, profound, and spiritual.While she was living in Portland, Oregon in November 1999, I received a phone call from her Relief Society President saying that she was sick and declining to go to a doctor. I called her and convinced her to go. Later, I learned that she had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and the doctor was proposing surgery to try to remove the affected part of her pancreas.

I was living in Columbus, Ohio at the time. I caught a flight to Portland and met her and my stepfather at the hospital where we were to meet with the surgeon. Many things were discussed, but one thing stands out in my mind.

The doctor warned that the surgery was likely to have a very painful recovery, and that was whether or not it actually worked. I will always remember my mother’s response. She said, “Well, I haven’t had a lot of pain in my life, but I know other people have. If they can handle it, so can I.”

The surgery was unsuccessful at arresting the progress of her cancer and she passed away on April 6, 2000.

What was so profound about her statement about pain was that I knew she had plenty of pain in her life, both emotional and physical. She just chose to not see it as pain when compared with other people she knew that had pain. I remember so many times when we had been sitting for awhile. When she would go to stand up, she would declare, “Oh, mercy!”

I can relate. I’m now about the age she was when she would have such trouble standing up and I’ve thought to declare, “Oh, mercy!” now and then. In the past few days, more than usual.

I haven’t been so philosophical about the pain in my life. When I was 24, I injured my back in a warehouse accident and have suffered with pain ever since. Since then, I have been diagnosed with osteoarthritis in my back and knees, gout in my thumbs, and bursitis in my shoulder. I’ve had plenty of pain.

I’m sitting here typing as carefully as I can, because the smallest movement sends a shock of pain through my back, right at the spot of my old injury. Yes, I’ve had pain in my life, and I’m quite willing to admit it.

While I’m not nearly as likely as my mother to downplay pain, I think she was onto something important. Another thing I’ve learned about pain, whether it be physical, emotional, or spiritual, is that much of how we experience it depends upon the narrative we use to explain it.

For my mother, the challenges of her life were things to be expected. To her, that was just the way it was. When she talked about having no pain, I’m pretty certain that she meant that she didn’t have any pain but that which was common to human beings. Her narrative was that pain was mostly natural and only extraordinary pain counted as real pain.

My narrative is similar. I have always thought that pain was just part of my condition as a mortal, part of my schooling as a disciple, and part of the test that life is meant to be. I’ve also thought of pain as a message and a diagnostic tool. We know what is wrong by where and how it hurts.

Others see pain as punishment. Some see it as evidence that there is no God, because a loving God wouldn’t let people hurt. Some complain about it constantly and others try to hide it or disguise it. Some use it as evidence that life is unfair. Some cling to it to justify their antisocial behavior. With the last, I’ll admit that my back hurting makes me grumpy.

This idea that we define what pain means to us through telling stories about it is part of what is known as Narrative Therapy. This is a mode of therapy that tries to separate who a person is from the problem a person experiences through the telling of stories that reveal the person’s inner strengths.

I like the idea and see how true it is. Many times, in working with clients, I see patterns of behavior based on narratives they tell about their lives. “I do this because…”

I’m not a therapist. I’m a social worker, so I don’t work on people using these techniques, but they explain a great many things about a person.

Mostly, I strive to know what my pain means to me. Right now, I’m struggling with this current pain in my back. I know its physical origin. I can pinpoint it to a spinal problem, a disk at L5/S1. What I don’t know is what triggered the most recent flare up.

I’m not really try to be one of those people who details all of their aches and pains. I do have an analogy I would like to present.

One approach people use when it comes to emotional issues is that when they feel emotional pain, they want to pinpoint the reason they are feeling it. They say that they can’t deal with it until they know the reason. I think that this approach is fraught with problems.

I can tell them the reason they are feeling emotional pain, maybe not as specifically as identifying a vertebrae. They are feeling emotional pain because of neurochemistry, receptors and chemicals in the brain cells. If I was more knowledgeable about such things, I could probably identify some of the chemicals involved.

Like me and not knowing why my back is flaring up right now, they probably can’t identify what brought on their depression, anxiety, or anger. They can make a lot of guesses, but usually it is no more than mere guesswork.

When my back acts up, I find that is much more proactive to forget trying to figure out how I turned wrong or lifted wrong or sat wrong. Instead, I get to work with medication, ice packs, hot packs, a TENS unit, relaxation techniques, and just good old-fashioned patience. At some point, when I’ve found relief, I find it useful to try to decide what I did to bring it on, mostly so that I know not to do that again.

Similarly, with emotional pain, I’ve found that it is much more effective to do what it takes to deal with that pain and not be so consumed by trying to decide what caused it.


As my mother thought, pain is not unusual. Life is full of it. What matters is how you not only tell a story but build a story.


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2 Responses to “The Meaning of Pain”

  1. Ross said:

    I’ve seen a great deal of the attitude that life shouldn’t have pain. Pain means something is wrong, but it doesn’t mean something is abnormal.

  2. Rex Goode said:

    Amen, Ross!

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