I have a deep appreciation of films which express man’s ability to increase his human development, mental, physical spiritual or otherwise, through hardship and sometimes an embracing of pain. A few that come to mind are movies such as Rocky, Warrior, A Man for All Seasons, or Green Street Hooligans. To be sure there typically involves some sort of fall from grace or a guttural, rock-bottom landing into the muck of the sinful intricacy.
One of the most paradoxical aspects of these movies is that within the embrace of trial and struggle a glimpse of hope comes peering through the muddied emotions of hurt and pain. We see on the face of Balboa himself when he is fighting Mr. T and screams for him to hit harder, to ‘bring it’, an inner epiphany that if I can make it through this short bout of physical pain, I know that in the end I will be bigger, better, and stronger.
We see this oftentimes in marathon runners who have almost made it to the finish line, their bodies are beaten, their minds are broken but a small glimmer of a smile opens on their face and they learn to embrace the next step, one at a time, until they finish what they started. Where does this come from? How is it that we can smile in the very face of the most difficult situations? Doesn’t this seem to resemble St. Paul’s exhortation of the cross in 1 Corinthians, which is a stumbling block to some and foolishness to others?
I have experienced this sort of enigma in my own life through two separate situations, one in my bodybuilding training and the other in my experience of childbirth. Bodybuilding is much different than most other sports. There isn’t really an offseason. It is a daily lifestyle that you must adhere to. For anyone who has ever lifted weights or exercised for a decent amount of time they can concur the incredible feelings of pushing yourself to the utter limits until you are nearly drained of every ounce of energy, emotion, and thought. It becomes a vacuum of space and time; there is only you and the next rep or the next step to your end target. The oddity is that it is in those times that I have felt most ‘human’ in the material sense. You can’t help but experience an inner sense of joy when externally it seems you ought to be racked with pain and not only do you embrace it, you encourage it and can’t wait until next time.
The second experience I have had is when I saw my beautiful wife giving birth. Sure, I didn’t experience the actual physical pain but I vicariously noted the inconceivable relationship between pain and pleasure. As I sat helplessly net to my wife struggling to bring into this world the incredible gift of life, I could identify in her the outward physical pain intricately wrapped in the swaddling expression of interior bliss of her fulfilling her role as wife and mother. To this day I laugh because I still remember my knees shaking during our first delivery and the nurse telling me to sit down. I can honestly say that sensation was a moment in time when my physical body was met with a profound expression of our metaphysical purpose. As all mothers can attest the odd mixture of agony and ecstasy of childbirth presents a paradox which is honestly hard to explain.
Where does this come from? Are we born with a natural inclination to want to know human growth and thus innately acknowledge that we increase our humanness and find a deeper relationship with the divine in an embracing of difficulty? Maximillian Kolbe, that hero of Auschwitz, once said that “The Cross is the school of love.” Doesn’t this seem a bit backward in our natural human inclination to search for comfort and shelter? It seems that the paradox of pain revolves around the sign of redemption, which is a paradox in and of itself.
The greatest heroes of our human race were those who decidedly suffered for others, a complete relinquishing of selfish desires in order that others might thrive. In the individual sense, the heroic person is one who devotedly expresses his desire for growth by relinquishing luxury in order to live for a higher purpose and end. Think about it: do you want to get smarter? You’ll need to turn off the easy-to-consume television and pick up a book. Do you want to grow spiritually? You’ll need to make time for prayer and worship, which means giving up time which might be spent in frivolity. However, it is during and through these times of self-restraint and self-mastery which might seem a stumbling block to the hedonist and foolishness to the materialist, that we become more human and thus that small amount of privation includes a much more powerful and fuller sense of joy.
It seems that our Christian faith is enveloped in constant paradox. Death brought life. Suffering brings joy. Humility brings a proper love of self. In the paradox of pain it might rightly be stated that if you want to grow in the virtues of soul and body, you must be willing to embrace the most difficult path. And just like the boxer who finds a moment to smile in the midst of so much commotion and chaos, or the mother whose heart is torn between the physical pain and the spiritual ecstasy of childbirth, we as Christians can stare at the Cross with a moment of self-abasement as we stare at the culmination of our sins but can combine that with the unending elation and adoration of the God of paradox.