Perspectives on Pain

by Margaret Saylar

Mark O’Brien depends on an iron lung for breathing, which he has done for 42 years. Yet while restricted to his apartment most of the time, he writes poetry and books. In 1997 the film Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien won an Oscar.

Before he became ill with post-polio syndrome, Mark used a portable respirator and managed to graduate from the University of California at Berkeley under a program that aids students with disabilities.

Does Mark complain because he is confined? No, he relishes his independence and rejoices that he no longer lives in a nursing home. He says, “Berkeley taught me I could do anything. I could transcend the limitations of my body, and then my body said, ‘Oh, no, you don’t.'” [1]

Mark has the right attitude toward pain and confinement, though he now only gets away from his iron lung an hour or two once a month.

We experience pain at one time or another: A close friend dies; we age; illness hampers; families disintegrate; we lose possessions during floods or fires. Some people become so weighed down by their hardships that they rely on alcohol, promiscuous living, or drugs to escape. Troubles overwhelm others and lead them to take their lives.

How can we cope with long-term pain? How can we make life more bearable for ourselves?


Many cope by being determined to contribute their leadership or talents to society. They have strong wills and desires to achieve.

These people exercise their willpower. President Franklin D. Roosevelt never complained about his handicapped legs and humbly endured pain and humiliation, always carried or pushed in a wheelchair. [2]

Thomas Edison had only three months of formal schooling and an increasing deafness throughout most of his life. Yet he learned to apply scientific principles in a practical way and became a productive inventor. His inventions led to the world’s first central electric light power plant, and his New Jersey workshops became prototypes of industrial research laboratories. [3]

An Irish writer, Christopher Nolan, has a severe neurological disorder that does not allow him to talk, walk, or chew food. He cannot control his arm or neck muscles. With a word processor strapped to his head, he wrote a bestselling book of poems, short stories, and plays, as well as an autobiographical novel. [4]

Support from others

Some people manage long-term pain with the support of family, friends, educators, or physical therapists. Damaging brain fever caused Helen Keller’s blindness and deafness at age 19 months. Her only means of communication was hysterical laughter or violent tantrums. But with the help of her teacher, Anne Sullivan, she learned Braille and graduated from Radcliffe College with honors. She developed into a writer, lecturer, and fundraiser for the disabled. [5]

Joni Eareckson Tada became paralyzed after a diving accident in 1967. During her recovery she laid in bed for two years, able to do little more than eat, breathe, and sleep. Her friend Steve Estes helped rescue her from suicidal despair by sharing his belief about eternity — that this life isn’t all there is.

Joni still cannot walk or use her hands. She has back aches and rests each afternoon and evening to cope with the pain. But she focuses on eternity, anticipating a new body that will enable her to run through fields, swim laps, ride horseback, and climb rocks.

Today Joni draws pictures by holding pencils and pens in her mouth. She is founder and president of an organization, JAF Ministries, which encourages disabled people worldwide. She was appointed to the National Council on Disability and has received many awards and honors — all thanks to a friend’s support. [6]

Born to overcome

Other people are born with strong personalities that help them when they face difficulties. The mother of Amanda Charles, a recent high school graduate, said that Amanda “came out of the womb screaming.” Amanda hoped to enter the Olympics in Atlanta, but she injured her spine when she leaped from rocks above Woodward Reservoir near Manteca, California. She had placed second at the world team trials and was headed for Olympic training when the accident happened.

One doctor predicted, “She will never come back.” Yet Amanda persevered in her treatment with the same determination she used in sports. In time, the feeling returned to her shoulders, arms, and part of her lower body.

It is still uncertain if Amanda will ever compete again in judo, but her father says, “She has never let anything faze her. I have never met another person with such deep faith and conviction in the future. I . . . honestly believe that she will step on the mat again and compete.” Amanda plans to enter the Olympics in Sydney in 2000. [7]


Some people try religion to find help in overcoming their disabilities.

Following a stroke, an actor learned he is not totally self-sufficient. When the doctor gave his wife the diagnosis, the actor overheard the doctor say that he probably would not live. If he did, he could be totally incapacitated.

At that moment, the actor did not know who he was or who his wife was. Yet he had a flash of hope and a vague awareness that there is a God, and he clung to that hope. Today, in pain, the actor gives readings, acts as a consultant, speaks at universities, sings, writes plays, designs, and creates art.

Michelangelo, the black sheep of his family, endured personal troubles and ill health, suffered nervous attacks, and lost family and friends in death. He said, “I have known every shame, suffered every hardship.”

During four years in which he painted the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo held his head back and looked overhead, causing him physical and mental tension. Afterward he could read letters only by raising them above his head. There would have been no works of art of David, Moses, Pietas, or the Sistine Chapel had Michelangelo given in to despair. He knew ungrateful rulers and hateful rivals. Sometimes he nearly died of painful infirmities. [8]

No wonder Michelangelo became absorbed for thirty years with the problem of dying with dignity. Through a friend, Vittoria Colonna, his search led him to find God by trusting Him. [9 ]


In addition to their physical pain, many endured emotional and financial depravation, but they too accepted their situations.

The composer Beethoven, sensitive about his appearance, had lifelong money difficulties, troublesome love affairs, and total deafness starting at age 28. Yet he composed outstanding symphonies and sonatas.

Louisa May Alcott experienced constant poverty and long illness resulting from serving as a nurse during the Civil War. Her books, most notably Little Women, touched many people. A newly discovered first novel, The Inheritance, became a movie recently. [10]

The qualities most of these people held in common were a spirit of adventure, a love of life, a sense of humor, an attitude of unselfishness, a persisting temperament, an upbeat personality, and a desire to repay others for what they received. They refused to indulge in self-pity.

Right perspective

What about us? Will we try to overcome our obstacles or give in to pain? Before deciding to give up because our suffering is too intense, we must remember those who enriched the world long after life became unbearable for them. If we give in to pain, what will the world lose that we could contribute?

More than this, we must consider One who suffered more than anyone else. Christianity has a Champion who suffered intense pain by being crucified on a wooden cross. To die by crucifixion is to be pierced by spikes, ridiculed, and hanged. Despite His pain, Jesus continued to exercise a love so strong that He could forgive those who killed Him. And the greatest victory of all was His resurrection from the dead so that some day we can live forever, free from pain.

Since Jesus understands suffering, we can trust Him to help us persist through anything (Philippians 4:13). Then we can be assured of the truth of Romans 5:3, 4: “[T]roubles can develop passionate patience in us, and . . . patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue. . . .” (The Messag).