There’s a book my nieces like to read. It’s about a little girl who refused to eat her vegetables and only ate pink cupcakes. When she woke up the next morning, her skin was pink. Appropriately entitled, “Pinkalicious,” the book teaches the lessons of listening to your mother and eating your veggies.
I eat my veggies, and I usually listen to my mother. Except when she tells me to wear sunscreen. Today, I became pinkalicious.
When my 90 year old neighbor came over with the daily newspapers, she gasped at the sight of my bright pink skin.
“Do you know what will happen to you?” she asked.
“Yeah, I’m gonna get skin cancer and die,” I quickly replied.
Skin cancer is not funny. And I know all the risks of not wearing sunscreen. But this morning, when I had to squint at the sight of my albino skin, I chose to be irresponsible and stupid and not wear sunscreen.
And now it hurts.
As I watch Dan in Real Life, every little movement makes me wince. It’s so uncomfortable. I’m half tempted to revert back to my 5 year old ways and lay topless on a towel on the floor sobbing in pain as I lather on more aloe vera. But I’m 21, so I’ll sit in my pajamas, sip on ice-tea and watch my favorite movie as I blog about the pain of sunburns.
My sunburn reminds me of a chapter in “An Altar in the World,” which is about the practice of feeling pain. As the author suggests, and I wholeheartedly agree, a person who has never been in real pain cannot give advice to someone in pain.
I feel like I shouldn’t even be writing about pain. Because my sunburn does not even come close to real pain experienced by people dear to my heart. But when I’m inspired, I must write.
I believe feeling pain can be a spiritual practice. Pain is something that so quickly reveals the good, the bad, and the ugly of the person experiencing the pain. Pain strips us of our frills and illusions and demands we be real with God. Pain causes us to ask lots of questions. “Why me? Why this? How can I fix this?” We cannot decide whether or not we will feel the pain; pain is nonnegotiable. We can however, decide how we handle the pain. Am I going to deny the pain? Am I going to try to avoid it? Am I going to fight it, numb it, curse it?
Or will I engage in the pain and really feel it? Will I pay attention to the pain and to what I need to learn from it? Will I accept my circumstances and let it reshape the way I think and feel about God?
Barbara Brown Taylor, the author of the book, talked about the intense pain of a torn cornea and the prayers she prayed throughout the painful night. “I found myself turning away from the God in charge of pain removal toward the God who had stayed with me through the pain no matter what I said…The pain had not only changed the way I prayed. It had also changed my ideas about the One to whom I prayed.” (pg 158)
I know many people who have experienced deep pain and much suffering. And they have wrestled with God and with questions that well up from deep within their souls. And I have come to understand Barbara Brown Taylor’s statement, “I learned that it is often harder to sit with someone in pain than it is to feel pain yourself.” (pg 160)
As I have spent time with friends in pain much more intense than my sunburn, I have asked many questions about divine justice. These questions have propelled me to Scripture as I have meditated on and shared Job chapters 38-39. The answers to my questions have only been more questions.
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”
“Have you commanded the morning since your days began?”
“Have you entered the storehouses of snow?”
“Do you know the ordinances of the heavens?”
“Can you send forth lightnings, that they may go and say to you, ‘Here we are.’?”
Pain reminds me that I am not God. God is still God. God is still good. And God is still in control.
But rarely do I want, nor do I need someone to tell me that. Sometimes, in the midst of real pain, all we need is someone to acknowledge the pain, to pay attention to the hurt and the confusion.
So if you’re pinkalicious, sitting in agony, despair, or hopelessness, acknowledge it. Feel it. Ask the questions that draw you closer to God. May you find meaning in the hurt and hope in a God who may not be answering your questions but will continue to stay with you.
And if you’re not sunburned, give your sunburned friend an aloe vera plant. Be generous. Pay attention. Be quiet. Pray diligently. And listen.