“Piteously. She hung her little head and whimpered piteously. Spell the word piteously.”
For three years, my oldest son Aidan has been aspiring to win his middle school spelling bee. In sixth grade, he froze up and was out in the first round. Days of heckling ensued. In seventh grade, he placed second. No heckling, just a hint of his own disappointment. This year, he’s the favorite, and he has his eyes set on the trophy that is, bizarrely, half his size. Then, after a half-dozen rounds dueling with the remaining contestant, the pronouncer asks Aidan to spell the word piteously.
Aidan spells it with two “i”s.
I’m watching via Facebook Live and I pump my fists in exaltation, believing he has spelled it correctly. The pronouncer tells us otherwise. And, on the screen of my mobile phone, my beloved son simply deflates. Somehow, I feel like I’ve been punched in the gut, too. Sure, it’s just a middle school spelling bee, but still, I want to claw my way through the digital screen and wrap him in a father’s hug.
There is nothing rational about it. A hug won’t roll back time and change an “i” to an “e.” A hug won’t prevent him from feeling piteous before his peers for the rest of the day. In this moment, a hug is no more and no less than the full promise of his pain, and the promise is this:
Pain pulls us together.
More than fourteen years ago, when he got stuck in the birth canal and his heart rate was dropping, his earliest moments of pain and peril turned all of my life’s priorities upside down. Everything I thought was important was suddenly inconsequential, and the only thing that mattered was holding him in my arms.
Pain disorients us and then reorients us to each other.
Thirteen years ago, when he spiked fevers so high they triggered febrile seizures and all we could do was give him Tylenol and cold wash clothes and lay next to his twitching body all night long to be sure he was breathing, his pain pulled our hearts into his orbit and wouldn’t let us go.
Pain draws us into each other’s orbit.
In the fourth grade, when he came home with a heart bruised and bullied by the sticks and stones of elementary school foolishness, I knew I could not protect him from the words of others. I knew a hug couldn’t magically restore his sense of self or erase his pain, but I hugged him anyway.
Pain sends us into the embrace of each other.
In the fifth grade, when he was off at sleep-away camp for a week and mid-week I felt a disturbance in the Force and I knew something wasn’t right and I couldn’t reach out to him for four more days and when we finally reunited with him and we saw his tears and we heard about his excruciatingly lonely week in the north woods of Wisconsin, I knew my hug was like dust in the wind, and yet I let the wind of his pain blow me toward him.
Pain blows us toward one other.
The problem of pain has always been this: how could a world created by Love and Goodness also be a world rife with so much pain and sadness. And this is indeed a problem. It’s a problem for me when my son uses two “i”s. It’s a problem for me when my kid is sick, and it’s a huge problem for me when some else’s sick kid doesn’t get better. It’s a problem for me when little ones are abused and loved ones die far too early.
How can a world created by Love and Goodness contain so much pain and sadness?
I’m not sure how. And I sure don’t know the why. But I can tell you the what. I can tell you what happens when pain is felt and pain is revealed: it pulls us together, attracts us into the orbit of each other, and blows us into the arms of one another. Of course, not everyone will be drawn to us in our pain, but those people who are drawn to us are the people we belong to.
Ironically, the promise of pain felt and pain revealed is that it delivers us back into the incarnate arms of Love and Goodness.
I don’t know if that’s why all this pain exists around us, but I do know that’s what happens when we confess the existence of pain within us. Then, we discover, the true problem of pain wasn’t the pain itself, but our tendency to avoid it and deny it and numb it and hide it.
So, perhaps it’s time we all got busy revealing our pain.
Then, in the open arms of others, we might discover not the piteousness of our pain, but the powerful promise of it.
And the promise is togetherness.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.