Facing Our Pain
In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday, this month, we will talk on Sunday about King’s dream and about our own dreams for a better world. Although I start out talking about pain in this column, I am also talking about the dream for justice, equality, and fellowship that King called for.
Last Sunday, I attended a service at Eastrose Unitarian Universalist Fellowship where the Rev. David Maynard spoke about pain. He was discussing the challenges and hopes for individuals who suffer from chronic pain. He quoted from a pastoral care pamphlet on pain that said, “Pain is a reliable indicator that something is wrong in our system.”
The system the pamphlet was referring to was the human body. So when we experience pain, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual, we can know something’s wrong. It makes sense to pay attention to that. Most of us don’t want to pay attention to pain. In fact, we’ll do almost anything to ignore or numb our pain. That’s what addiction is about. But recovery is about facing our pain and getting through it.
Getting through pain doesn’t necessarily mean the pain will go away. Physical pain can continue long after obvious causes have disappeared. Pain from traumatic experiences and other mental health issues can last a lifetime. Yet healing can diminish the suffering and the disability often associated with pain. Living a life of recovery can allow us to cope with pain, relieving it when possible; managing it when not.
Historical and Cultural Pain
That is true for us as individuals. I believe this is also true for communities and societies. Pain in any system, whether that of families, congregations, or countries, lets us know something is wrong. And right now in the United States, there is a lot of pain. Something in our country is wrong. Of course, there’s always been pain, in every society and in every era. Both individual and community pain. People have suffered because of natural disasters, ineptitude, greed, bigotry, the lust for power, and just plain carelessness. And some groups, such as people of color, the poor, and women, suffer even though we have been speaking out for their rights for hundreds of years.
Today, though, I think we’re seeing pain in every segment of society. Not only are the disenfranchised suffering, but the educated class and the middle class are suffering. Even the wealthy are suffering, if you measure pain by how much anger and manipulation a system expresses. Perhaps the anger of the wealthy comes out of fear, but isn’t fear a kind of pain?
It seems everyone in America is speaking out of his or her own anger right now. We hear cries for change from all parts of our society, from the ultra-right, the evangelical, and the libertarian; from the homeless, the anarchist, the college student; from the liberal churches, the think tanks, and even the middle managers. What caused the student uprising during the Vietnam era? The pain of the draft. When oppression gets bad enough, people revolt. So it was with the Civil Rights marches. To view it simplistically, the black man and woman said, “Enough.” Their pain had reached an intolerable level.
Finding Hope Amid the Pain
Yet people need more than pain to rise up and call for change. As is true with the individual, if pain is unrelenting, we often give up. What causes an individual, or a larger system, to reach out and work for healing instead?
Hope. Martin Luther King, Jr. offered us hope. Yes, the situation his people faced was intolerable. The situation is intolerable today for an increasingly large segment of our society. And, yes, the intolerable pain makes us want to escape into drugs, sex, the internet, violence, or other “vices.” But that is not the only answer.
King had a different answer. When King gave us his dream, he also gave us hope for a way out of our suffering, hope for healing. If we, as a person or a country, want healing, if we want recovery, then we need to embrace the kind of answer that King offered us. We have to embrace a dream.
King didn’t live to see his dream fulfilled. In fact, none of us have lived to see his dream of racial justice fulfilled, although in some ways the situation has improved since his time. But King knew that living to see the dream fulfilled wasn’t what mattered. In his last speech, he talked about threats he had received against his life. He let the people know they existed, and that they didn’t matter, because his individual life isn’t what mattered.
“I’ve been to the mountaintop,” he told the people that day. “And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
Holding a Dream
Rousing and important words. What was also important for King, however, was that he didn’t feel that he was struggling against the powers of oppression on his own. Not only did he have a community of people, with him, but he had divine support. He ended his speech by saying, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Once King had seen the grace of God, nothing else mattered to him. What mattered to him then, and what matters now, is the work God does through us. What mattered to him, and what matters now, is the faith and hope we have to move forward, day after day. Today what matters is that we create a dream, that we hold that dream, and that we offer that dream as a vision of hope to the next generation.
Keeping the Faith
King said he’d seen “the coming of the Lord.” However you imagine your god or higher power, that god is here, right now. That god lives within any community that gathers out of love, that gathers to pursue justice, that insists on the brotherhood and sisterhood of all people, no matter their race, gender orientation, addictions, physical disabilities, mental illness, criminal past, or economic status. That we can gather and do gather in a spirit of love is by itself a glorious thing.
King had a dream that all people, everywhere, would one day live in friendship. That dream is still alive. We see it every day, in every small act of kindness, in every smile, in every hand held out in friendship, in every offer of service.
Yes, the stakes are high. Yes, we have a long, hard road to travel. Yes, it seems we fix one problem and another arises, sometimes because of our very fixing. Life can seem overwhelming. But there is a deeper truth: We have one another. And in one another, we see reflected the glory of our god. As Rheinhold Niebuhr said, “Nothing worth doing is achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.”
When we experience pain, whether as individuals or communities, we need one another. We need faith and love and strength. And hope. We need a vision that convinces us that change, healing, and recovery are possible. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave us both the dream and the hope. May we carry it forward.
In faith and fondness,
Copyright © 2012 Barbara E. Stevens