Pain is a Signal

Pain is a signal. But it can signal different things. I was reminded of this yesterday, when I was thrilled to get to spend some time skyping into the Comm 180 class at my alma mater, Trinity Western University. It’s always exciting to get to share some of my experience and hope that it helps people with their own callings.

The students asked some great questions, and as I gave answers I noticed myself going back and forth a lot. The paradoxes, the tensions, the juxtapositions. So much is situational when it comes to calling. One person asked about how you know it’s time to move on and I started my answer with pain.

Pain is a signal

When I burned out at my first job, I was in pain and it goes worse and worse the longer I stuck it out. I had physical stress symptoms, mental exhaustion, emotional upheaval etc. My pain was a signal that intensified until I couldn’t ignore it anymore. When I quit, I was flooded with peace and relief.

When I wrote my book, it was hard. I didn’t like it. I had back and neck and arm pain from the lengthy computer time. I was mentally exhausted from trying to write well. I was emotionally fragile as all kinds of classic writer’s doubts assailed me. In this instance I felt like the pain was signalling that I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. When I was done writing the book, I had a huge sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.

Both experiences involved pain but signaled something different. In the first instance, the pain was signalling that I needed to remove myself from a situation that was toxic for me. In the second instance, the pain signalled that I was on the right track – we never create without resistance, without overcoming hurdles.

To be honest, it can be easy to assume the wrong thing about pain. I picked two instances where I feel like I made the right call about it, but I know I’ve made plenty of wrong ones too. Sometimes we assume it’s necessary pain and hurt ourselves by staying. We assume we should never quit, that the pain is something we can fix, ignore or overcome with enough time. Other times we give up too easily. We experience some unexpected resistance and assume it’s a signal that we’re going the wrong direction. We stop when we should push through.

So how do you know what your pain is signalling? How do you know whether it’s a situation where the pain “is gain” or it’s a warning to stop?

I think it takes time. Time to check your reactions and underlying motivations for continuing or stopping. Time to ask your trusted advisors. Time to check your sense of well-being and identity. It’s never an easy call. It’s unlikely to be straightforward. That’s why we need so much discernment and wisdom in our lives. Because so much is situational and unique for each person and there usually aren’t quick, easy answers. It reminds me of a favourite quote my dad sent me awhile back:

Never make a principle out of your own experience; let God be as original with other people as He is with you -Oswald Chambers

What do you think? How do you normally respond to the pain signals in your life?