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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Of Stubbed Toes and Broken Bones

Is it just me, or is one of the strangest phenomena of the human body the stubbed toe?  Of all the things a person could do to injure themselves, the average stubbed toe has to be about the least serious.  Unless you really, truly haul off at some immovable object, in a few minutes your stubbed toe will feel just fine and you'll be walking around normally.  You'll probably forget it ever happened.  But for the first few seconds after stubbing your toe, for some unknown reason you feel like you just amputated something without anesthesia.  Man, does it hurt!

Then there's breaking a bone.  I've never broken a bone and I don't intend to start, but just the thought of it makes me queasy.  Now that has to be really, really painful, about as painful as a badly stubbed toe.  But there's a difference.  After a while, the broken bone still hurts.  In fact, it probably hurts more.  And unlike a stubbed toe, the broken bone is actual damage done to the body, and if it isn't treated properly that damage may be permanent and the person may walk with a permanent limp.  No one has ever suffered that from just a stubbed toe.

But what's really odd is that in the moment of injury and immediately thereafter, I'm not sure it's easy to tell the difference between a stubbed toe and a broken bone.  When pain is shooting through your nervous system like liquid fire it's hard to analyze anything or be reasonable at all.  (There's a dent in my refrigerator door created about one second after I bashed my head on a nearby cupboard that proves this point.)  Only by exercising great self-control to freeze for a little while and not take action can we then sort out whether this is hurt-as-in-pain or hurt-as-in-pain-plus-injury.

I think there is a parallel between this pattern with our bodies and what happens when we are offended emotionally.  Any offense of some sort hurts, and it is very difficult to control oneself at the moment of hurt.  But we have to give ourselves time to figure out whether this is a stubbed toe that can just be blown off and forgotten about or whether this is a broken-bone offense that still needs to be forgiven but may require some more serious healing work between the two parties.

But here's where the emotional parallel differs.  With our physical bodies, if we stub our toe, we don't have to choose for the pain to subside and to feel better.  It happens by itself, and we figure out it's only a stubbed toe no matter how much we rage in the meantime.  But emotions don't work like that.  If we get our emotional toe stubbed but we immediately assume that an emotional bone was broken—in other words, we make the issue a bigger deal than it is—then that pain will never go away because we won't let it.  In a way it becomes a broken bone because of our reaction.  If we do that often we quickly get to a point where we simply can't tell the difference between a stubbed toe and a broken bone.  Every time someone offends us, we make a big deal out of it in our minds and eventually with other people.

But worse, when we can't tell the difference between an emotional stubbed toe and a broken bone, then we also can't tell the difference between hurt-as-pain and hurt-as-injury.  We consider emotional pain to be a true injury just because it's pain.  But if our definition of hurt is nothing more than pain then our definition of healing is nothing more than removing pain.  But if healing is just removing pain, then we will never be healed when we actually do have an injury to be healed from.  That's because real healing of real injuries involves more pain—pain of setting a bone or surgery or rehab.  This is true of both our bodies and our emotions.  But if in our minds being healed means not being in pain anymore, then we will never allow ourselves to be really healed.  We will just keep looking for some emotional experience that makes us happy and drives the pain away.  But such experiences are always temporary, and the injury lingers.

I have seen this in others, and I have experienced it myself.  Sometimes someone says or does something that wounds me and I get angry.  If I give it time and don't yield to the anger I may realize it's not a big deal—it's a stubbed toe.  But if I do give into the anger then I start demanding that the other person "make" me feel better.  So then I define my wholeness by their ability and willingness to change my emotional state.  That never turns out well.  I never get satisfied until I make my emotional state my responsibility instead of theirs.

But other times when someone wounds me it actually is a big deal.  And there have been times that I have refused to believe it's as big a deal as it is—that is, insisting that my broken bone is only a stubbed toe even though it's worse.  So I blow it off as if it's no big deal, but deep down in my soul it actually is a big deal, and I'm still silently holding on to resentment over it.  As that injury remains untreated, and as I just keep putting off dealing with it and stuffing it down by focusing on my superficial emotions, it gets worse and worse.  It becomes a "root of bitterness" that eventually, when I least expect it, bursts out and damages people and myself in terrible, vindictive ways.  I once horribly humiliated myself and someone I loved this way.  I once failed to get a job this way too.  It's bad news.

But all of this can be avoided by carefully distinguishing between stubbed toes and broken bones, between simple pain and true injury, at the very beginning.  Being quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry—which is much easier said than done—gives us time to tell the difference.  So for example, wait a good 24 hours before sending that hurt and upset e-mail, perhaps even before writing it, because things that get written have a way of getting themselves sent.  (I know—easier said than done.)  Then if it no longer seems important, forgive and forget.  If it's still disturbing, even if it's not quite as painful, then do the more painful thing and call the person or meet them face to face, because that greater pain (i.e., anxiety) in the short run is part of healing the actual injury, which will spare everyone more hurt in the long run.

"Love . . . keeps no record of wrongs" (1 Cor. 13:5) is more complicated than it first appears, but it starts with taking the time to tell the difference between a stubbed toe and a broken bone so as not to magnify pain or ignore injury.

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