The mother’s voice carried across the field to the children far ahead. “Kids, stick together!”
The older brother grabbed the younger one’s arm. “Come on, Fatso! You’re slowing us down!”
Their sister frowned at him. “You’re not allowed to say that!”
“But it’s true!” He stopped and folded his arms. “And the truth shouldn’t hurt!”
“That’s stupid,” she said. “Of course the truth can hurt.”
The boy smirked. “I didn’t say it couldn’t. I said it shouldn’t.”
The boy was right, in a way. He meant that good things like truth shouldn’t cause bad things like pain. If truth causes you pain, it must be your fault because you’re bad.
But the girl had a point, too. Truth can hurt. Think of all the times you’ve realized you’re wrong. It is unquestionably better to have truth than falsehood (as truth increases integrity of soul), but the pain it brings can cause you to wince for years afterward.
How can something good be so painful?
The Pain of Truth
The truth of pain
Physical pain is the body’s alarm system. When we get a cut, for example, our skin can’t warn the rest of the body by itself. Instead our nerves, the problem-sensors, ignite and send a message. Thankfully, it’s just the sort of message the brain can’t easily ignore. Pain is a built-in goad; it forces us to defend the damaged part.
We should note that, if this is true, pain is not simply bad. It’s a useful, insistent messenger who won’t let us roll over until either the problem is solved… or it’s too late. Like anyone whose messenger only brings grim news, however, we have a bad relationship with pain and generally want to kill it. Instead, we should look to the cause.
Causes of pain
Pain results from two types of causes. Sometimes you get the “pain message” because something bad is happening. Other times, it’s the result of something good.
Let’s look at the case of frostbite. There are three stages: the pain of destruction, the painlessness of death, and then the pain of recovery.
Pain of destruction
When you’re out in the cold for too long, you can get pains from exposure. Your skin starts to feel like it’s on fire. A deeper pain comes next, as if your muscles were hardening into bone, and moving becomes difficult.
The signal is clear: change something! Either remove the cold from you or remove yourself from the cold!
This is the pain of destruction. It is caused by something healthy becoming sick. We should avoid the causes of this pain whenever possible.
Painlessness of death
If you don’t get out of the cold fast enough, your body stops telling you about the pain. It’s warned you insistently, but you haven’t done anything. It gives up; the cold has won. The best thing to do is to keep you numb and pain-free. In these severe cases, the numb eventually gives way to a feeling of warmth. Anyone who tries to wake you and move you begins to look like an enemy, someone who is taking you from your “Happy” place into the true, frozen world.
From this we see that pain is a sign of life. As Westley puts it,
The only time you feel no pain is when it’s too late to change.
Pain of recovery
If you do make it to a hospital, however, the doctors and nurses will work to save you, to slowly bring you back to life. As blood and warmth begin to flow, so does pain. In fact, this process can be even more painful than the destruction.
This is the pain of recovery. It is caused by something sick regaining health. Where the pain of destruction is an encouragement to change, the pain of recovery is a reminder that all is not yet well. But at least you’re alive, and getting better.
So the pain of recovery is an encouragement to stay on the path to health. In this case, it is incorrect to avoid the cause of pain. To do so would be to allow your fingers to slip back into death.
Pain caused by truth
So which type of cause is truth? Since it is a good, it can only be a good cause. Truth—which brings us back from lies, revives us from death, and reminds us what life is—is a cure. The pain it brings can only be the pain of recovery. Just as in the pain of physical recovery, we must not shy away from this source of spiritual recovery, no matter how we are tempted to avoid the pain.
So… that’s the third stage. When did we miss the first two?
This is a significant difference between the physical realm and the spiritual: We are more likely to be spiritually sick, or even dead, without realizing it. We don’t usually experience the pain of becoming wrong; we start in the painless, dead state. We are blind to the problems within us. We view ourselves as perfect. When truth comes and hits us in the face, we are pained; we come to know that we are not perfect. To admit it is to engage in pain. But it is the only way for us to heal. Only then can we hope to become more perfect.
So the boy from the story was right. Truth only hurts us because we’re imperfect. But his sister was right, too: Truth is very likely to continue hurting us throughout our lives as we continue to learn that we’re not perfect.
But don’t forget that this pain is the pain of recovery. And… At least we’re not dead.