A Willingness to Learn from Pain

“A Willingness to Learn from Pain,” Ensign, Oct. 1983, 63

A Willingness to Learn from Pain

At first my wife and I resisted our children’s request to get another dog. Then we found ourselves asking whether the joy of companionship with a puppy would not more than offset the risk of losing it.

We can learn something worthwhile from our experience with spiritual and psychological suffering—those pains of the heart that may come from a wounded conscience, loneliness, disappointment, or a love that is lost.

Some will remember Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the literate wife of the famous pilot, Charles Lindbergh. The kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, which finally resulted in the child’s death, once captured the attention and sympathy of the American nation. In looking back on her life, Mrs. Lindbergh wrote:

“I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness, and the willingness to remain vulnerable.” (Time, 5 Feb. 1973, p. 35; italics added.) We will all suffer in one way or another, but we need a certain perspective if our suffering is to teach us.

A few years ago our family inherited a dog—a friendly little pup who was all black except for two white paws and a splash of white across his chest. For our three sons, he was to be a real pal. One afternoon I was interrupted at work by a call from home that told a sad story: “Dad! Dad! Our dog is dead!”

“Oh, no!” I said. “I’ll be home as soon as I can.”

I have seldom seen such looks of gloom as those that met me when I arrived. A motorcycle had come out of nowhere; nobody really knew how it had happened. The rumpled little body was laid to rest in a corner of our backyard in a ceremony that was brief but mournful. I don’t know when I’ve heard so many questions asked all at once about the meaning of the resurrection. But the answers didn’t help—the boys were despondent beyond comfort. As we trudged back to the house, I remembered, but chose not to repeat, what a friend of mine had heard one of his children say on just such an occasion: “Not much of a funeral for such a good dog.”

After that experience, my wife and I resisted for awhile our children’s repeated requests to get another dog. Among the reasons for our reluctance was our desire to spare our children the grief of another event like losing the black puppy. Then we found ourselves asking whether the joy of companionship with a puppy would not more than offset that risk.

I have found in working with others that many of our decisions are influenced more than they should be by our desire to avoid sorrow, distress, frustration, and other kinds of psychic suffering. We understandably prefer almost anything to that kind of pain.

Our culture has become as skillful in the art of neutralizing emotional and spiritual pain as in sedating physical pain. Medicine is, in a sense, symbolic of our age. Unquestionably, medicine is often a blessing; but as all must know by now, the drugs of our time, both the literal and the figurative kinds, also offer escape—not only from pain, but also from responsibility and reality. And thus some people have developed an instinctive inclination to chart their course, both short and long range, by choosing those alternatives that will minimize their exposure to the uncomfortable consequences of taking life as it comes. Avoiding or escaping discomfort becomes almost a guiding purpose of life, as if getting around such pitfalls were the essence of a happy life.

The gospel teaches, however, that the presence of painful experience is an important element in man’s capacity ultimately to experience joy—and not just because it feels so good when the pain stops! I do not encourage the outright seeking of pain; for it, like temptation, will find us soon enough. Nor can I feel good about the martyr who strangely seems to enjoy and prolong the misery of his misfortunes—the type who is willing to suffer in silence as long as he is sure everybody knows about it. My concern is simply with those whose priorities and responses seem carefully designed to avoid or escape from psychic pain, almost at any cost. Let me illustrate.

Consider the pain that comes when your conscience cries out against something you have done or are about to do. There are various ways of responding to that pain. One response tries to outwit the pain by changing one’s basic attitudes toward the actual existence of God and the validity of moral laws, claiming that neither really apply. That change may take some time and effort, but those who have rearranged their view of the universe in just that way have found that somehow the new view makes them more comfortable—because it makes the pain subside. How sad! For this change represents only a temporary period of self-deception. Sooner or later, in this life or the next, they shall again see reality as it is and feel their pain all over again, even to “weeping and wailing.” In like manner, we may find temporary relief from pangs of conscience by inventing some rational explanation why “this time” what we did was not wrong.

Tragically, those who continually manipulate their conception of reality will discover that while they no longer feel pain when violating a commandment, they also no longer feel the kinds of joy they once knew. What they do not realize is that both their pain and their joy are natural responses to things as they are. Since their highest realizations of joy flow from their accurate perceptions of God’s reality and the joy of the Saints, the removal from their mental framework of both God and the Saints automatically removes the joy associated with both.

Of course, it is still possible for such individuals to substitute some form of pleasure, so that one who turns his face from God to avoid facing him may still have his fun. But being deprived of true joy is a terrible price to pay to turn off the pain of deserved guilt. Building an entirely new worldview in one’s mind in order to keep the pain turned off is a formidable task, since the universe that really exists is impossible to change.

Fortunately, there is a better alternative. The pain of a wounded conscience comes to us not just to cause suffering. It is an invitation for us to respond in a way that will ultimately lead to joy. To accept the invitation early, we simply need to stop—in midair if necessary—and turn away from whatever we were going to do. If it is too late for that, the invitation of an aroused conscience can still be accepted by a visit with the bishop and by a few other well-known steps of repentance. This approach will also stop the pain, but it will also leave you true to yourself and to the universe of God’s reality. At the same time, your capacity for joy will be undiminished—it may even be enhanced through newly discovered self-control. Then the next time the pain of conscience comes, it will come as the voice of a friend, to tell you those sensitive, painful kinds of things you would hope a true friend would share.

Consider briefly the kind of pain we encounter in the field of formal learning. There are classes or subjects that sometimes seem like a pain in the neck, or maybe they seem painfully dull to us. In such circumstances, those who do not sense their own responsibility to read and think and understand, simply turn off. They have grown accustomed to just changing the channel if a learning experience doesn’t hold the promise of being “fun.” Far better it would be for them if they would cope with the growing pains of discipline, initiative, and determination to stay with a difficult task until it is mastered, until they earn the joy of true understanding. But all of this may sound “boring”—that ultimate ugliness—to those who believe they have a right to be entertained.

Another kind of emotional pain to which we all seem subject arises from the risks we take in allowing ourselves to love others. There is no suffering quite like that which comes when love is shattered. After years of patient waiting for what seems like the right time, one may open up his or her heart to another, only to find that tender heart bruised or broken when the love is not returned. We therefore bear a grave responsibility for the purity of our motives when some trusting heart has offered us entrance. Anyone who stands on that threshold stands on holy ground, which must not be exploited or defiled. But should a relationship so develop that, even in spite of honesty, caution, and goodness of motive, a parting of the ways still must come, we must not let the pain of that moment make us so resentful or bitter that we become unwilling to risk opening our hearts again. That kind of risk is necessary, because loving simply has its risks. In a sense, there is no love without certain kinds of fear.

One of love’s fears stems from the continuing possibility that one we love, whether sweetheart, father, child, or sister, may not return after saying good-bye to us one day. Such fear is the constant companion of the wives of soldiers—or even the parents of teenagers just old enough to drive. I will confess that such fear—such pain—comes over me at times, because I have not held back in giving my heart to those special ones who are in my home. I know that leaves me vulnerable, but it is a risk I am willing to take; its pain is far offset by the abundant joy of love.

There are similar risks in deciding to marry, deciding to bear children—you never know what burdens you may be called upon to bear as a result of those irrevocable commitments. I have seen those who bear such burdens—the wife who becomes chronically ill, the malformed child, the duty to care for helpless in-laws; these are the risks of love. But love is worth them all. Love is indeed refined and deepened by them, if our love is pure.

There are many other kinds of pain associated with learning what God would have us learn here. There are the growing pains that come from learning through our mistakes—for to learn from our own errors requires that we honestly acknowledge them, something that will always be painful for those who strive for competence. It is also painful to become as independent as we must be, learning not to expect others to solve our every problem and meet our every need. It sometimes hurts to be realistic, or to wait when patience is required. But the Savior of the world knew all these kinds of pain, and many others we can never comprehend. “Man of sorrows” was his name. (See Isa. 53:3.) Surely, he was “acquainted with grief.” Only he was capable of absorbing the mental and spiritual anguish inflicted by Gethsemane. As he himself tells us of that pain—how sore we know not, how exquisite we know not, how hard to bear we know not. (See D&C 19:15–19.) Yet when he elsewhere says, “my joy is full” (3 Ne. 17:20), we are assured that a fulness of joy for one such as he, must be richer, fuller, again more exquisite than we may ever know in mortality. There must be some natural relationship between our capacity to be taught by pain on the one hand and our capacity to receive joy on the other. That might be worth remembering when our own pain seems sore and exquisite. (See Alma 36:21.)

There is one other kind of pain of the heart that is familiar to most of us. We call it homesickness. If you feel a little homesick when you are away from home, that is probably a good sign—both about your home and your priorities. Of course, a serious, long-lasting case is probably not healthy for young adults who are gradually being weaned and prepared to build homes of their own. But I mention the idea of homesickness for a larger purpose.

I was once present in a student ward sacrament meeting where a member of a temple presidency was talking thoughtfully about temple work. Just before his talk the choir had sung “O My Father.” (Hymns, no. 139). I was a stake president at the time, and as he was about to finish, I received a message inviting me to say a few words before the meeting closed. I began reflecting about the temple, asking myself what it really meant to me. I found myself thinking of it in these terms: the temple—a symbol that we are not of this world; a place where earth and heaven meet; a place where homesick children think of home.

The singing of that beloved song had stimulated my memory to recall, for some reason, an evening in the home of a warm, bright, and sensitive woman in faraway Germany. As missionaries, we had gone to her home for a peaceful few minutes of refreshment and conversation with her family following their baptism. Because she spoke fluent English, she had added a couple of Tabernacle Choir records to her collection during her investigation of the Church. The records were playing in the background as we sat together and talked about our blessings. When the choir began to sing a beautiful, moving arrangement of “O My Father,” we stopped visiting and sat back to listen to the hymn. When it was over, we were all a little misty eyed. Then she told us in quiet, reverent tones that listening to this song had been a major turning point in her prayerful evaluation of the restored gospel. She told us about the German word sehnsucht, a poignant, meaningful word that has no exact equivalent in English. I suppose the closest translation would be “a longing for home,” but the German word has elements of both longing and searching. She told us that during most of her life she had felt a strange longing for home—a sehnsucht—that had often made her melancholy, at times a little lonely, but she could never identify that for which she longed. She told us that she had been impressed with the occasional references to such a feeling in the writings of some great European authors, who thought it might have something to do with an innate, almost subconscious human yearning somehow to make contact with the essence of nature and meaning in a universal, cosmic sense. The first time she had heard this song, she then knew what her longing was, and where it came from. “Yet ofttimes a secret something Whispered, ‘You’re a stranger here,’ And I felt that I had wandered From a more exalted sphere. … But until the key of knowledge Was restored, I knew not why.” Then, “When I leave this frail existence … Father, Mother, may I meet you …” As she described it, I too felt the longing for home, and I too knew where it came from. (Hymns, no. 139.)

Both that experience and that feeling are sacred enough to me that I hesitate to talk about them too frequently. But I felt impressed to talk about them in that meeting in order to explain more fully why the temple means what it does to me.

After relating this story, I felt impressed to share an agonizing experience I had had that same after noon interviewing a young couple from our stake who had wanted to be married in the temple but who had put themselves into a position where they were not worthy to enter that holy place. As I tried to describe how those two people felt about wanting, in a sense, to go “home” but not being able to go there, I found myself thinking about my own longing for home. The almost overpowering thought came to me—what if I were unworthy? What if I could never return? What if, after having to turn away my head in shame from that eternal home, I were once again to hear the song “Father, mother, may I meet you …”? I really don’t think I could stand it. I would spend eternity trying to find some way of shutting off the pain of a longing that could not be fulfilled.

I suppose I will remember for a long time both the words and the feeling expressed by the young man who said the closing prayer in that sacrament meeting: “Please help us, Father. We want to come home.”

My present sense of the sehnsucht, as poignant and piercing as it sometimes is, has become the source of my deepest possible motivation, constantly reminding me that everything here is temporary but the gospel. That kind of pain, that kind of homesickness, is a feeling I never want to lose. For if I lose it, through my rationalizing, my behavior, or my treating lightly the things of God, I know when that great and dreadful day comes when all our knees will bow together, that very pain will return with full-blown and everlasting intensity.

So I am willing to remain vulnerable to those painful realities that inevitably come with facing the truth about myself, with learning, with growing, with loving, and with trying to be faithful. Pain of that kind helps me remember that I am in contact with life as it was meant to be experienced, thus preparing me more fully for that appointed reunion with those who sent me here—when, at last, my joy may be full.

  • Bruce C. Hafen, president of Ricks College and father of seven children, is a Regional Representative.

Illustrated by Dilleen Marsh