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Chronic Pain and the Temptation to Complain

October 8, 2013

ComplainingIn coping with chronic pain or any other difficult circumstance in life for that matter, it is quite common to fall into the trap of complaining. Complaining is often justified by thinking to oneself or stating out loud to another, “well, I just had to get that off my chest, now I feel much better.” The truth is that complaining doesn’t actually make you feel better nor does it improve your attitude or spiritual state. In fact, the opposite effects are often evident. Late last year, I wrote a post on venting. Venting and complaining are related behaviors that may seem harmless but are in fact harmful.

What I wrote in that post is relevant to the issue of complaining. The desired cathartic release sought in complaining doesn’t produce such a release that allows one to leave complaining aside, but its opposite-a morose, glum state, primarily because complaining, like venting, does not change anything. In fact, we may even feel more powerless than before. When we complain about chronic pain or our state in life we choose to focus on that one particular issue giving it even greater influence over every other aspect of our lives. When we begin to complain, we choose a path of behavior that leads directly to judging and criticizing others. In Alcoholics Anonymous, members will use a slogan, “poor me, poor me, pour me another” to remind the complainer that self-pity is a dangerous state of mind for the alcoholic, leading to destructive, instead of constructive behavior. It’s just as dangerous for anyone else, including the person who suffers with chronic pain. Complaining is a path whose end is a bottomless, dark pit of self-pity and dissatisfaction with the only life we will know on this earth. That’s why the Holy Scriptures are replete with exhortations against complaining. Saint Paul reminds the church at Philippi, “Do all things without murmurings and disputing that ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world” (Phillipians 2:14). Saint John Chrysostom, in commenting on this very same passage writes, “The devil, when he finds that he has no power to withdraw us from doing right, wishes to spoil our reward by other means, for he has taken occasion to insinuate pride or vainglory, or if none of these things, then murmuring, or, if not this, misgivings. Now then see how Paul sweeps away all these. He said on the subject of humility all that he did say, to overthrow pride; he spoke of vainglory, that is, “not as in my presence only”; he here speaks of “murmuring and disputing.” But why, I want to know, when in the case of the Corinthians he was engaged in uprooting this evil tendency, did he remind them of the Israelites, but here has said nothing of the sort, but simply charged them? Because in that case the mischief was already done, for which reason there was need of a more severe stroke and a sharper rebuke; but here he is giving admonitions to prevent its being done.”

Like anger, complaining is taken seriously in the Holy Scriptures and the writings of the ancient fathers. As strong weeds in a beautiful garden overtake the garden and choke off the beautiful flowers depriving them of all nutrients and room to grow, so too complaining is a poisonous weed in the human heart that chokes off love. This may be a particular challenge for someone suffering with chronic pain. It might be tempting to legitimize complaining as a way of dealing with the pain. Yet, such a temptation must be recognized for what it is and immediately rooted out for it produces no healthy results. Psychology and the wisdom of the church fathers speak similarly when they exhort those who are suffering or in pain to focus on that which is uplifting, beneficial and joyful. Just as there are difficulties in life, there are also blessings.

Saint Cyprian of Carthage spoke of the difference between those who complain over their lot and those who do not in this way: “Do you think that we suffer adversity equally with yourselves, when you see that the same adverse things are not borne equally by us and by you? Among you there is always a clamorous and complaining stop signimpatience; with us there is a strong and religious patience, always quiet and always grateful to God. Nor does it claim for itself anything joyous or prosperous in this world, but, meek and gentle and stable against all the gusts of this tossing world, it waits for the time of the divine promise; for as long as this body endures, it must needs have a common lot with others, and its bodily condition must be common….There flourishes with us the strength of hope and the firmness of faith. Among these very ruins of a decaying world our soul is lifted up, and our courage unshaken: our patience is never anything but joyous; and the mind is always secure of its God, even as the Holy Spirit speaks through the prophet, and exhorts us, strengthening with a heavenly word the firmness of our hope and faith” (Address to Demetrianus). The choice is ours and so are the fruits that each choice brings.

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