It is pain that produces a pearl, and although I am far from being as simply striking as the pearl in Johannes Vermeer’s famous painting, I recognise that my pain over early surgery has taught me a great deal.
Many of us know how a pearl is formed. After a microscopic parasite invades the soft tissue of a mollusc such as a pearl oyster or a freshwater mussel, the invader is buried by one tiny concentric layer after another of a crystalline form of calcium carbonate, the same substance that forms the mollusc’s shell. A grain of sand can also set off this protective response.
Unfortunately for the pearl’s host, the pearl’s formation (a) serves no other purpose than a kind of immunisation, and (b) this results in countless millions of molluscs being hunted, farmed and killed – just to harvest their small gem of a lifesaver.
We often quote the mantra, “No pain, no gain” because it’s an inescapable truth in our lives.
1 Something that’s harsh, painful, ugly and traumatic can have good results. Punishing a child when necessary is essential to growing a civil and productive human being. Surgery is often the only way to safeguard our life. Like the cross of Christ a scar is ugly and intrusive on our sense of wellbeing, but it’s also a symbol of a life saved – surely a gift that its beneficiary values more than anyone else. Our most unreasonable and emotionally distressing experiences are often found later to have been our most character building ones.
My surgery to correct pyloric stenosis was the core reason for a short but significant list of infant and childhood experiences which have taken years to live down. I seem to have succeeded in mapping and conquering this rugged landscape and this gives me great satisfaction. As a result, I know myself, my parents, and my friends so much better now.
2 Working though our own pain (and really only this) helps enable us to work with others in pain. I have found that people who refuse to learn about their own inner self are rarely the people others or we’d like to have at our side when we’re in a deep valley.
The ongoing trauma effects of my pyloric stenosis surgery have given me a deeply-felt realisation of how unlikely it is that we’ll escape our genes, temperament and shaping. This recognition has reinforced my inherited heart of compassion (see my recent blog on this), so that I suspect that my level of sensitivity is arguably greater than that of my siblings – and probably somewhat over-developed, as my parents seemed to think quite early!
3 The pain with which I have struggled from childhood has integrated easily (for me) with the Christian truths and ethos which my parents helped pass on to me. The key motifs of the Christian faith are human and cosmic brokenness and God’s grace evoking our love. The cardinal emphases of the Calvinism with which I grew up and which I respect so much are our inability to liberate ourselves from ourselves and God’s vital role in setting us free.
All of these make a lot of sense to me as I relive my frustration and despair with the fears and phantoms which flowed from my surgery and its consequences.
So the pyloric stenosis part of my life is now a pearl of value. What started off as unwanted and ugly soon became a horrible irritant from which I tried desperately although vainly for many years to protect myself. In time I have come to terms with what I can now (usually) regard as a pearl.
It’s significant to me as a Christian teacher what the Bible does with pearls in Revelation ch. 21:21. Each of the 12 gates of God’s heavenly city is a huge pearl. With a little reflection, the symbolism should be fairly clear: the way into God’s heart is through the ugly but priceless cross of Jesus Christ, the way to God is through a life of growth through pain and: God’s arms are open to people coming from any and all directions.
I trust it’s not difficult for the reader to realise that I find that image especially touching.
May I wonder what is your most valuable “pearl” – and what you’re doing with it?