When Muscles Get Damaged

So, yesterday, I started writing about pain. In particular I wrote about the pain fallacy – that is the idea that the more pain you have in your life, the more pain you are capable of dealing with. As I said, in this view, our tolerance for pain is like a muscle which gets strengthened with use. However, we know for a fact that often just the opposite is true. People who have already dealt with a lot of pain are often less able to cope with additional challenges than others. Today I want to go back to that muscle analogy and explain why this is.

Now, the idea that pain tolerance operates like a muscle is actually a pretty good one. Infants are born with basically no pain tolerance. But after 15 years of dealing with bumps, bruises, the odd illness, hunger pang and injury, you often end up with a kid with ridiculously high pain tolerance. He can practically rip half his flesh off in a dirt bike accident and continue goofing around for hours without stopping to tend to his wounds. A kid who was once devastated to be denied another scoop of ice cream works through the loss of a dear pet or even a relative like a champ. Clearly, pain tolerance, like a muscle, does get stronger with time and use. The problem is that not all use is created equal and not all challenges have the same results.

When you life weights, the goal is to create tiny tears in the muscle by forcing it to bear a weight greater than its current capabilities. Your body then creates additional muscle tissue to fill that gap and heal the muscle, thus increasing the strength of the muscle. But anyone who knows anything about building muscle will warn against attempting to lift too much or tax your muscles too heavily, lest you cause damage which is destructive rather than helpful.

If you attempt to lift substantially more weight than your muscles can bear, you can create large tears in the muscle tissue. When this happens, you have a strained or pulled muscle. In really extreme cases you can cause so much damage that you can develop a dangerous condition known as Rhabdomyolysis. (It’s gross and you don’t want it.) Or you could sustain some other injury like a pulled or torn tendon or a broken bone. There is such a thing as lifting too much weight.

Similarly, there is such as thing as experiencing too much pain. Life was never meant to be easy. We were always going to get sick, die, experience natural disasters, etc. And occasionally, that does get to be too much for a person. But generally, those normal course of life events are the sort of things we can manage and which tend to make us stronger and better.

However, it happens far too often that we humans do things which introduce far more pain into a person’s life than they are able to manage. When this happens, it can cause an injury which makes it harder for them to cope with additional strain than someone who has not sustained such an injury. Just like an athlete with a pulled hamstring is not likely to perform as well as non-injured athlete.

The problem is made even worse when injuries are never treated properly, so they don’t ever really heal. When this happens to a physical muscle, it can have a profound negative effect on a person’s overall health and well-being. Even when a muscle heals from an injury, it tends to remain vulnerable to being re-injured in that same spot. When it isn’t allowed to heal, it forces you to move differently, thus placing additional strain on other muscles to compensate. These muscles are then more likely to become injured because they are being overused and moving in unnatural ways. Over time, untreated injuries can pretty well cripple a person.

Psychic injuries caused by more pain than a person can manage work much the same way. A child who is abused by a parent will often lose the ability to trust. Trust is like the muscle which has been damaged badly enough that it can’t be used. He or she will develop all sorts of maladaptive coping mechanisms in order to compensate for their inability to trust. Often they will struggle to find a healthy medium between trusting completely and inappropriately and not trusting at all. When a new, painful experience occurs, they are unable to use the ability to trust as a tool for coping. And their other tools, if you will, are already being overused and strained in unnatural ways. Which makes additional injuries more likely. Without help, that child is in serious danger of growing into someone who has been so damaged by life that they are unable to function normally.

And that is the reason that I think we need to do a better job understanding and dealing with pain and the damage it causes. People will sometimes argue that since even extreme pain can be overcome and those who overcome it end up being remarkable people, we should not be too pessimistic or alarmed by it. However, even if we assume that all people will eventually overcome their extreme pain and be better for it, this is not a harmless process.

People losing their battle against pain and suffering are the means by which humanity’s mess perpetuates itself. Any person you have ever met or even seen on TV or in the news who is destroying themselves or others is someone who was overcome by their pain and suffering. What it takes to push someone over that edge varies wildly, as does what it takes for them to find their way back from that point. But when someone goes over that edge, there is always a heavy price to pay for it.

We live in a world filled with people who have been crippled by their injuries. And without serious work, those people are prone to injuring everyone around them. I personally think that the time for accepting this as the normal course of life has ended. We cannot keep doing this to ourselves and others. It’s not just part of life. It’s not healthy. And if we can do nothing else to stop it, I think we need to start letting God know that we’ve had enough. We’ll keep tending our wounded and seeking healing, but in all seriousness, come quickly, Lord Jesus! We are in danger of destruction and need your assistance. 

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