The Pickled Pain of the Past
Dr. Paul Brand was one of God’s great gifts to the world and to modern medicine. The son of English missionaries to India, Brand came home to Britain in preparation to follow in his parents’ footsteps. He studied to become a physician, and he honed his surgical skills as a doctor in the midst of the German bombing of London during World War II. Afterwards, Brand returned to India and remained there for decades, pioneering in the study and surgical treatment of Hansen’s disease, or as it is more commonly known, leprosy. Hansen’s disease, which destroys the nerve endings of the skin, results in limbs simply dying. It is a horrible, disfiguring condition, and amputation is sometimes the only medical recourse.
Dr. Brand was called in to consult with a patient who had suffered with extreme leg pain for years but would not consider amputation. But finally, the pain became too much to bear: “I can’t stand it anymore,” the patient told Dr. Brand, “Take this leg off!” The patient, who worked in the medical field himself, made one morbid condition before submitting to surgery. He asked that the amputated leg be preserved in a massive jar of formaldehyde so he could sit it on a shelf and jeer at it. “Hah! You can’t hurt me any longer, leg!” the patient planned to squawk each day at the jar. Yet, the leg got the last laugh.
The amputee developed something called phantom pain. Phantom pain is the feeling of real pain from a limb no longer there. It remains a mystery how it happens, but it is possible for the brain’s neurons to be programmed to receive the signal of pain and hurt, even when the source of pain has been removed. For Brand’s patient, he had hated and struggled with that bad leg for so long that the throbbing sensation lodged in his brain. The old source of his pain sat on the shelf and taunted him even when the suffering should have ended.
We all keep a collection of pickled limbs on our shelves and in our memory banks. And the pain these produce is no shadowy phantom; the suffering is all too real. Bad decisions, former relationships, an ill-fated rendezvous, bygone injustices and defeats: Even with these things in our distant past, they still hurt. Is there a way to get well, to stop the pain? I think so. The greater part of the pain and regret we carry around with us (or what mocks us from the shelf) is the result of not accepting this truth about ourselves: We are not irredeemable and damaged goods. Rather, we are the objects of God’s undying, unending affection.
Sure, we’ve all heard that “God loves the world,” but it is so much more personal than that. God loves more than the world, he loves you. And he does so with such profoundness, that none of your failings, baggage, hang-ups, or preserved and pickled attachments – “nothing in all of creation,” the Apostle Paul said – will ever separate you from God’s love. If our past and memory banks can contain it, God’s love can overcome it, and it is that kind of individual love – deep, abiding, and unshakable – that changes us, eases our pain, and sets us free. For the power of unearned, untainted, undeserved, unstoppable love is the greatest power in the universe.
Once in a religious discussion and agreement with another, I was asked rather accusingly, “Don’t you love God?” My answer was simply, “I don’t know,” because sometimes I don’t know how true my love for God is. It waxes and wanes with my circumstances, mood, and the levels of caffeine and serotonin in my bloodstream. So no, I don’t know how strong my love for God is because it is a frail, human love subject to my limitations and the number of pickled limbs I keep on the shelf of my mind. But I do know that God loves me. I know that God loves you, and that makes all the difference.