A Trip To the Doctor: Putting Pain and Suffering In Context

My doctor was ecstatic. “You’ve got a stress fracture in your foot, Tom. This is the best possible news!” He was so happy he was almost giddy.

Not everything is as it seems.

Some time ago I was amused by James Lindsay’s accusation that I had played “the context card” on him, for not accepting the ambiguous apparent meaning of a single scripture verse as he thought I should.

Context matters. Here’s the rest of the story from my visit with doctor. It was just the day before yesterday. I had a part swapped out in my ankle last December 11, an “allograft transplant” of my left peroneus longus tendon. This was a re-repair of an unusual rupture, the second of two surgeries necessitated by a congenital problem that caught up with me a few years back. (The first surgery never healed.)

Four weeks ago the doctor gave me the go-ahead to start walking while wearing an orthopedic boot. Let me tell you, it was great to be back on my feet at least! I could only walk short distances at a time, but I felt so free, being able to do just that.

But then something went wrong. I called the doctor’s office and told him I was experiencing a new severe pain on the side of my foot. I told him I couldn’t tolerate even wearing the boot, and could I please have some strong non-narcotic pain medicine?

Peroneus tendon work is known for having a lower percentage success rate, which was why the first work on it didn’t turn out so well. I didn’t know what I’d gotten myself into.

It turns out the doctor was pretty worried too. He used a new technique with me in this surgery. He couldn’t help but wonder if the whole tendon had torn loose. I think I could have assured him that hadn’t happened, but he didn’t ask those questions on the phone. He just instructed me to take it very easy until I saw him next.

So this week when he examined me and diagnosed a stress fracture, he was mightily relieved. The treatment for a stress fracture on the base of the fifth metatarsal is almost nothing. It means wearing the boot a few more weeks, that’s all. I can handle that. There was no transplant failure. It only means being patient a while longer with the process. I was relieved, too.

I’ve had a sore foot for just about two-and-a-half years running, with painful irony attached to the word “running.” It’s been my fourth and longest bout with a boot. I’m pretty sure I’ve used orthopedic boots and casts for well over a year of my life, because of this congenital problem (huge accessory ossicles in both peroneus longus tendons, for those who care to know).

I don’t know anyone else who has needed to replace one of these boots because he’d worn one out. It’s painful when I walk, and once in a while I get random stabs of sharp pain that makes me just gasp. It happened while I was writing this very paragraph.

I say all that for a reason: I’m not exactly prone to making light of the pain like I’ve been experiencing. I want to make that very clear as I move on to my next point, which is that there’s a lesson here about putting pain and suffering in context.

We don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes, out of sight, in the zone of the unknown. A stress fracture is good news when put up against a failed tendon transplant.

What if I’d had a stress fracture, though, without knowing that the alternative was a torn tendon? That’s pretty far-fetched for me in my current medical context, but what about the first time I had a stress fracture, back in the late 1990s? It happened while I was recovering from a lesser case of the same accessory ossicle issue. The treatment for that stress fracture then might have kept me from tearing the tendon then.

Or it might have kept me from a car accident. Or from accidentally hurting someone some other way. Or … who knows? Maybe it brought me closer to the Lord, and stronger in character.

Pain and suffering is a problem, no doubt, and atheists and skeptics often tell us that gratuitous suffering means there is no all-powerful, all-good God. Who knows what’s really gratuitous, though? Who knows what’s going on behind the scenes? My doctor was relieved when he found out my situation wasn’t what it might have been, but which one of us can compare our pain to what might have been? How could we know what might have been?

This might-have-been perspective is just one way of looking at the problem of pain and suffering. There are other answers, some of which I think are stronger than this one. But this one was on my mind this week. I think you can see why.

* * * * *

P.S. I won’t say it made everything worthwhile, but my foot problems gave me the chance to do something I’ve wanted to do for the longest time: get the telemarketer to hang up on me, instead of vice versa.

It was while I was waiting to see the doctor four weeks ago. My cell phone rang. The caller said, “Hello, Mr. Gilson, this is so-and-so from [some company]. How are you doing today?”

I put on a very somber voice. “I’m in the waiting room, getting ready to see the surgeon.”

Long silence.

“Oh. We’ll take you off our call list.”

Click.

I told the receptionist there what had happened, and we both got a good  laugh out of it.

Comments 6
  1. Ray Ingles

    (I’ve been mostly away from computers for a few days, so I’m catching up here.)

    Glad things seem to be going in the right direction. I can relate to an extent, I’m keeping up my knee exercises in the hope the twinges will pass. Slipping on the ice around here hasn’t helped.

    This might-have-been perspective is just one way of looking at the problem of pain and suffering. There are other answers, some of which I think are stronger than this one.

    One reason it’s weak is that it’s just as prone to reversal. Perhaps, a la Lovecraft, all the apparent good in the world is just setting the stage for an even more unimaginable horror.

    Since the putative justifications are – by definition – beyond human understanding, there’s no way to disprove them. Either way, good or evil.

    That doesn’t tackle all possible theodicies, of course, but it does rather let the air out of the ‘hidden eventual good’ one.

  2. Tom Gilson

    Ray, the problem of evil and suffering is not a problem of how to prove that God is good. It’s a problem of showing that he is not evil. You’ve shown that I haven’t proven God is good. That’s a different question, to be approached from a different direction, primarily the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

  3. JDH

    “Pain and suffering is a problem, no doubt, and atheists and skeptics often tell us that gratuitous suffering means there is no all-powerful, all-good God. Who knows what’s really gratuitous, though? Who knows what’s going on behind the scenes?”

    I’m sorry, but this is really flimsy. You are leveraging doubt in oneself to undermine doubt about the existence or character of God. It’s reductive to say that gratuitous suffering “means there is not all-powerful, all-good God.” Rather, the problem of suffering is not sufficiently explained by desperate dogmatic contrivances and ought to be a source of doubt.

    The necessity of suffering is not as hard to measure as you suggest. “Just trust me that she had to die; you wouldn’t understand,” is an illegitimate explanation. Humans are remarkably capable of making valid moral determinations. The logic you are attempting to use here is a major religious problem. If, in fact, we cannot judge the merits of suffering independent of a God, then what stops humans from enforcing that arbitrary standard as justification for atrocities? Absolutely nothing. This is not a hypothetical; it’s happening around the world as we speak.

  4. Jenna Black

    JDH,

    Have you read John M. DePoe’s chapter in True Reason titled “The problem of evil and reasonable Christian responses”? If so, would you care to address specifics of DePoe’s arguments?

    Here is my “take” on suffering and evil: I do not attempt to excuse suffering in the world. I accept suffering as part of the human reality and experience. I understand why it exists. To use an analogy, suffering is an alarm system that alerts us to the fact that something is not working the way it should. Each and every human being has a relationship with suffering because we are biological beings. Biologically, it is a response to a physiological dysfunction. Emotionally/spiritually it is a response to loss, injustice, unloving or evil acts. All human suffering ends either in healing or death. Suffering in the world cannot be eliminated since without its function as a warning system, we could not function as human beings. But although suffering, most of which is caused by human actions, cannot be eliminated, it can be ameliorated and it can be redeemed.

    I refer to Romans 8: 35, 37-39: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” “Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor things present, nor things to come. Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

  5. scblhrm

    Jenna Black,

    Regarding your “take” on suffering:

    Beautiful and thank you for that ~~~

  6. scblhrm

    I agree with Tom as I’ve experienced the same sort of thing. The God of the OT, Who is the God of the NT, speaks throughout the OT of the Better that is Yet To Come unto/into all nations, all tongues, as what He does He does into/unto Worlds, being no respecter of persons. Throughout the OT we here Him telling Mankind of a location, a condition, void of sickness, void of tears, ever reminding Mankind of the hope of Genesis’ Protoevagelium. The God of the OT hates such things, such sickness, such tears. As do we. Hence “Better” necessarily employed. Of course, He is able to do what we cannot, pending Time’s acquiescence to Timelessness, which is to redeem such things, turn/twist such unnecessary evils into Good, Light, even, it seems, into Life. I agree with Tom. I cannot count the times I’ve watched the God of the OT, Who is Love, do that with my own illnesses, and – even – with my own sins.

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