How Much Pain Can You Handle?

Mark 7:24-37 – The 15th Sunday after Pentecost – for Sunday, September 6, 2015

“Looking into heaven, Jesus sighed deeply and said, ‘Ephphatha,’ which means, ‘Open up.’” (Mark 7:34)

Anticipatory pain!
Anticipatory pain!

As an aging baby boomer, the infrequent conversations with my doctor frequently include the dreaded five-syllable “C” word.

Yes, a colonoscopy.

In my first colonoscopy oh so long ago, one or two persnickety polyps were found. Though minor red flags, the gastroenterologist said he removed them and I had nothing to worry about. Wrong. If there hadn’t been polyps, I could’ve avoided another colonoscopy for at least a decade. Frankly I’m fond of procrastination. It’s one of my favorite five-syllable words.

Unfortunately, polyps meant follow-up exams.

I had another this year. Such a joy, joy, joy down in my . . .

The Day Before C Day

Here’s what I despise about a colonoscopy: the day before. If you haven’t experienced the multitudinous pleasures of visiting your neighborhood endoscopy office, anything I write to describe the preparation will be like explaining algebra to my new puppy. If you’ve had the procedure, you know exactly what I mean.

Oh how I wish Jesus was slipping through town, doing a little quick and easy healing. Why couldn’t my wife play the role of the woman demanding a cure for her daughter (Mark 7:26)? Something like, she begged him to cast the polyp out of her husband. After a little give-and-take, presto, Jesus cured me. Or, why couldn’t I be the like the deaf man (Mark 7:32), taken by his friends to the Nazarene? There wasn’t a C-Day minus one for that healing miracle. Instead, a private conversation, a few well-chosen phrases and gestures, and the fellow departed, rejoicing in the sound of bird songs and children’s laughter.

Alas, Jesus didn’t appear in my zip code. However, on C-Day minus one I consumed a concoction with Trilyte that could have been renamed Ephphatha. Yes, indeedy! Ephphatha was the Aramaic phrase Jesus uttered to the deaf man and his “closed” ears: Be opened! And the unhearing heard! I dutifully consumed Trilyte, gulping a gut-busting three liters of the fluid, and soon: ephphatha!

You want more details? I didn’t think so.

The Day of C Day

colonoscopy-bwMoments prior to being wheeled into the room where the doctor awaits with his miniature camera and (hopefully) steady hands, nurses tended to me. One prepared to plunge a needle into my flesh for an IV line while the nurse on the other side of my bed asked mandatory questions before drugging me into la-la land.

Nurse Needle, her voice hushed, said, “This will hurt a little.”

Nurse Question, her voice louder, reading a pre-op check list, asked, “How much pain can you tolerate?”

“Oops, sorry,” Nurse Needle muttered after jabbing the vein above my middle finger. “Didn’t work, I’ll have to try another place.”

I grimaced.

“What I mean,” Nurse Question continued, “is if there’s a scale between one and ten, and ten is the worst pain, how much pain can you handle?”

I thought of when I busted my left leg in three places. Physical pain! I thought of when I went through a divorce. Emotional pain! I thought of yesterday and chugging gallons of Ephphatha. Liquid pain! I thought of the nurse beside me with her sharp needle. Anticipatory pain!

“Oops, sorry,” Nurse Needle apologized again. “That vein in your arm looked perfect, but it didn’t work.”

I grimaced. Nurse Needle was 0 for 2. I sighed deeply, but didn’t look toward heaven.

Through gritted teeth, I explained to Nurse Question that pain levels are subjective. I mumbled something like, “What if I can take more pain in the future than I’ve experienced in the past? How can that be quantified?” She didn’t seem to appreciate my philosophical inquiry. After all, she had a form to complete.

prep2Nurse Needle gave up and left. Nurse Question stopped querying me—I have no idea what number she provided for the pain scale—and circled to the other side of my bed.

She attempted to insert the IV. Ouch!

“There, it’s in,” Nurse Question announced.

Did I detect a smirk from her?

After the C Procedure

How much pain can you handle? In all the Gospel tales of healing, Jesus never asked anyone about pain thresholds.

Please sir, cure my daughter. Please sir, let me hear.

“Now,” Jesus never said to those in need, “before helping you, I wondered, on a scale of one to ten . . .”

After the colonoscopy, the doctor shared that the results were negative. Which, in medical-speak, was positive. No polyps this time. My colon, if you’ll pardon the expression, passed with flying colors.

Days later, I still think about Nurse Question. She was doing her job. In the operating room, even with a procedure as “simple” as a colonoscopy, the medical staff wanted me comfortable.

How much pain, physical or emotional, can I handle? Truthfully, I don’t know. None of us really does. (And by the by, I’m not an advocate for the disingenuous trope . . . God won’t give you any more pain or suffering than you can handle. But that’s for another essay.)

However this I believe: as that woman approached Jesus with her worries about her daughter, and the deaf man’s friends brought him to Jesus, the Nazarene desired for them to be without pain.

I suppose, with the next person you encounter, you could play Nurse Question’s role and ask, “On a scale of one to ten . . .” But there’s no need to ask, for pain is our common companion. It’s the irksome guest who never departs; it’s the Dear John letter that always arrives. We’ll take drugs to mask pain and withhold truth to avoid pain. And yet, for most of us, the most painful moments of our lives were also a prelude to change, and often enough, a change for the better.

And so, burdened with pain but trusting God longs for us to be healed, friends brought a deaf man and a mother pleaded for her child’s health.

Be opened, Jesus said to them. Not open to wallowing in old pain or pretending life will be pain-free, but open to the risks of new life.

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  1. Remarkable discussion of the role of pain in our life. Pain is or can be present in every moment of our lives or absent depending on our situation. I used to think if I could solve each problem as it came along I could live a pain free life. Not so, it seems each day has enough pain to make sleep a welcome companion for the night.

    In some ways I have come to see pain as a motivator, resource and monitor. Pain has value as long as you stay away from the “Why” questions. I believe the only response to pain is: “What now?”

    1. I appreciate your comments, John. And so agree with you: “Pain has value as long as you stay away from the ‘Why’ questions.” I have taught and preached and written variations of that . . . but sometimes it’s hard for us (for me) to remember! Thanks for reading . . .

  2. This essay is so perfect – not only in reminding me of the reasons I have never had another colonoscopy after the mandatory first one but also in reminding us of the role pain can play in our lives.

    1. Well, I cannot applaud or criticize your decision about the 5-syllable C-word! Far be it from me to give (worthwhile) medical advice. But I do thank you for reading, Suzi . . . and pain does impact our lives in so many different ways.

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