Revealing Our Wounds, Receiving His Healing
It was 2015 and Abe Adams bustled into our branch’s new building with a delighted look of recognition.
“Ben!” he said as he grabbed me by both shoulders to give me an embrace.
It really was a scream. Maybe it seemed louder than usual because it was in church. Perhaps I have a higher register than I imagine. But I screamed. It was a short, sharp cry that was accompanied by a white flash of pain.
My right shoulder had recently undergone a repair to the rotator cuff and labrum, as well as some arthroscopic shaving of the bone. I’d been on and off my Percocet pills and was trying to make it through church unmedicated. When Abe’s hand hit me on the shoulder, I honestly felt I was going to die.
I dropped to one knee, my eyes brimming with tears.
“Oh no, oh my gosh. I am so sorry,” he began in a shocked voice.
I kept my head down and tried to gather my strength. The initial flash of pain was coalescing into a feeling of nausea in my gut. “I’m okay,” I gasped. “I’m okay.”
“No, Ben, you’re not,” Brother Meredith chimed in. He appeared by my side and helped me onto the couch. “You stay here for a while.”
I staggered backwards onto the foyer couch and felt the rest of the room slowly come back into focus. As I raised my head, I felt the eyes of the branch members on me: Tawney had a hand covering her mouth, Ken’s eyes had expanded to fill his large, square glasses, Makayla stood frozen in a doorway. And Abe Adams (not his real name).
I don’t know—can I even say it? Poor Abe Adams. Brother Adams stood there awkwardly, shame coloring his face, while his wife looked on in horror. Frankly, he looked as though he’d just decked a guy who’d had shoulder surgery the week before.
I laughed a little. A very little. Yes, my shoulder was on fire and my cheeks were tear-streaked, but even then I could see that there was something comedic about the situation.
I realized later that my problem was the camouflage. My arm sling was dark blue. My blazer was dark blue. I’d intentionally paired the sling with this blazer and enjoyed how it was masked. I wasn’t going to make a big deal about my arm. I didn’t want undue attention. I wanted to be as unobtrusive as possible. And I paid for it. I wanted business as usual and as the irony of the universe dictates, I received Abe’s usual and enthusiastic greeting.
A few years and another shoulder surgery later, this time to the left one, I made it a point to never venture outside the house without a contrasting colored shirt beneath my sling. In the past, I had put my vest or coat over the top of the sling and kept my arm hidden inside. Not anymore. Jacket on first and then the sling over the top of the whole outfit—a ward against unsuspecting friendliness, a talisman against touching.
My sling could communicate my injury.
My shoulders have since recovered, but as I sat in sacrament meeting recently, I considered the implications of my improved tactics for shoulder recovery and safety. By learning that the sling could keep unwanted physical contact away, I consciously chose to send that signal out. It was like having a skunk’s distinctive black and white striping. Stay back! Terrible things will happen if you hit this arm.
Still, I made the request as openly as I knew how: Please don’t hurt me. I am vulnerable.
My strategy worked. When my sling was plainly visible, not once did a single person jostle me. They stopped in crowded hallways and let me go first. They held doors for me. They slowed down and gave me a wide berth as we crossed paths. Their concern was my protection. The armor I wore was not my own: it was the care and courtesy of others. They gave me grace for my physically fragile condition.
There is a Buddhist expression that goes like this: “just like me.” The purpose of the phrase is to use imaginative thinking to embrace the common humanity of strangers. For instance, just like me, this stranger has needs and wants that are similar to my own. Just like me, this guy on the freeway is trying to make it home to his family. Just like me, this person is leaving after a long day at work. And just like me, this dude in the sling feels pain acutely and deserves a little extra care.
When it comes to matters of physical pain, we have the concept of “just like me” deeply embedded. It’s in our bones. It’s also in our faith. The idea of “just like me” appears in our scriptures, Sunday school lessons, and songs. The lyrics of “I am a Child of God” clearly and beautifully teach the principle that each of us is a beloved child of God, equally important and precious in God’s sight. Most importantly, Jesus taught us “just like me” when He suffered and died for us.
As painful as it is to recover from surgery, there are many things that are more painful. And those pains are often hidden from plain view, deep aches in the depths of our souls. I wish we didn’t keep these hurts so hidden. At least, not from our brothers and sisters. We have a tendency to hide our pain from others, even those who dearly would want to help.
If our pain were more public, I believe we would receive deeper kindness from each other. In the same way that others gave me so much leeway when they saw my sling intentionally displayed on the outside of my outfit, I believe others would be more likely to empathize with us when they know how much we are suffering. Yes, we hope others will treat us with compassion even when our sorrows aren’t seen. But when we allow others to see our struggles with their own eyes and hearts, they can give us Christlike love and attention more freely.
Do we believe we are worthy of their care? Are we willing to allow them to fulfill their hearts’ desires, namely, attending to us in our times of need?
I wish that we would be brave in asking for help, in showing to each other where we are aching and vulnerable. After all, each person in our covenant community promised to mourn with those that mourn, to comfort those that stand in need of comfort, to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places. Indeed, we show our faith in the Lord and in His church when we allow our fellow saints to care for us.
I recently practiced this when I moved my family from Colorado to Utah. The move separated me from my wife and kids for months as we juggled a new job and impossible housing markets in two different states. My initial stoicism quickly deteriorated into doubt and loneliness. Everything in my day from morning till night was unfamiliar, uncertain, and difficult. Never before had I felt so alone and lost.
It took me several weeks of deepening depression before I finally reached out to some trusted individuals. I didn’t want to admit to anyone that I was crying in the dark each night or binge eating until I was bloated. In the end, though, I couldn’t go on alone any longer. With a new friend and some close relatives I talked about my doubts and my fears, about my depression and my loneliness.
Each in their own way lifted me and watched over me. My cousin suddenly had new restaurants he wanted to check out with me. My brother-in-law took me running. My friend, a member of my new ward, invited me over for dinner. And my dad told me in so many words, “Ben, it will be okay. You are going to get this figured out. It will not be like this for very long.” These good men brought acute relief to an acute pain.
This is a small example of what it means to share unseen pain with trusted brothers and sisters. For a time, I drew heavily upon the Lord’s storehouse: a storehouse stocked with the compassion, generosity, and wisdom of covenant members. By signaling to others that I needed help, they were able to fulfill their promises to the Lord that they would respond to every brother in need, and I showed my faith in those promises.
And so we should try. We should try to both alert others to our pain and to attend to theirs. And what we miss—and we will miss a lot—is under the care of the Master Physician. We can take heart from this knowledge: all suffering is plain before him, so if we don’t catch it every time, it’s okay! He is always there. He is never fooled by our attempts to conceal our pain, for He is a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
“Oh, it is wonderful that He should care for me!” Oh, it is wonderful that He knows my pain and stays by my side throughout each torturous moment. Oh, it is amazing that He walked into Gethsemane with his eyes wide open, knowing that all the sin and pain of the world was moments away. Oh, how magnificent and tender and merciful is our Lord, who sees all our hidden hurts, who knows the depths of our secret pain, who succors us like no one else can.
Imagine a pair of glasses that when donned gave the wearer the ability to see as God sees. I think I would see many more slings on the arms of my fellow beings. And because of the slings, I would see fellow patients, fellow sufferers on a shared pilgrimage where pain was the common stitching that bound us together.
Ben Inouye is a middle school English teacher, coach, husband, father and occasional bus driver. He is also the author of middle grade fantasy and creative non-fiction.
Artwork by Fidalis Buehler.