The Pain of Getting Well
Last year I was poking around in a cool little bookstore in the Rocky Mountain town of Canmore when I happened upon a little book called What Comes from Spirit by the late Ojibway author Richard Wagamese. Wagamese is best known for books like Indian Horse, Medicine Walk, and One Native Life. I had the opportunity to meet Richard in 2014 when I hosted an event he was speaking at. I remember him as a very soft-spoken and gentle man. And a great storyteller.
The book I found in Canmore is very short, and is comprised mainly of scraps and fragments that Wagamese wrote online on his various social media accounts. One of these fragments stood out to me:
I’ve come to understand that the pain of a wound or a loss is over as soon as it happens. What follows is the pain of getting well.
Richard Wagamese knows more than a little about the pain of getting well. His story was a hard one that included being abandoned by his parents, raised in an assortment of severe foster homes, wandering down paths of addiction and poverty and relational dysfunction of all kinds. In the second half of his life, he seemed to settle into a kind of peace with himself, his family, his spiritual beliefs, his identity, his place in the world. His writings would be a powerful window into his own experience and with indigenous experience more broadly. He died, too soon, in 2017.
I don’t know how old Richard Wagamese was when he wrote the line above about the “pain of getting well.” My guess is that it was in the last third of his life. It’s not the kind of line you can write without going through some stuff, without enduring and inflicting some pain in the world, and without having some time and space to reflect upon it all.
Getting well isn’t easy or straightforward. In the fifth chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus asked a man who had been ill for nearly forty years and was lying by the pool of Bethsaida, if he “wanted to be made well.” This question has long given me pause. It seems, on the surface, like a kind of stupid, even insulting one. After four decades of suffering, who wouldn’t want to be made well? But Jesus knew—and knows—that human beings often resist wellness for a wide variety of reasons.
Sometimes the incentives to remain unwell are difficult to resist. Sometimes the rewards for even manufacturing and curating unwellness are alluring. In our time, Frederik deBoer has written compellingly about our complicated, conflicted, and very often incoherent relationship with “mental health culture.” It is sobering reading. My GenZ kids have echoed much of what deBoer says. They have told me about being in social contexts where there was almost a stigma around not having some kind of identifiable affliction or diagnosis or medication. Illness, like everything else in our world, is now often absorbed into and subsumed under the totalizing category of personal identity. It’s part of a brand, a fixed feature of “who I am,” a means to status and affirmation. Sometimes we don’t know who we are without our pain. Sometimes we don’t want to. This does not bode well for genuine wellness.
Getting well cannot happen without the truth. It requires unlearning lies that have been internalized and are hard to dislodge, lies that have been embraced, even cherished. It requires hard journeys of forgiving people who have done terrible things and hurt us in deep and defining ways. It requires taking a hard look in the mirror, seeing unflattering truths, embracing personal responsibility, and deciding to pursue different paths. There are inevitably illusions and idols that need to be sloughed off on the road to wellness.
From a Christian perspective, getting well means encountering God. The truth of God. The mercy of God, for all that was inflicted upon us that we could not control. The summons of God, beyond that which keeps us tethered to our pain in unhealthy ways. The freedom and hope of God. It means facing honestly who we are in the light of who God is. It is not painless, but it is purifying. It is not a simple or seamless process, but it is the path to wholeness and salvation.