What a purler!

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?

4 thoughts on “What a purler!

  1. Mark

    I certainly intellectually connect with your concept of the pearl. I know in my head that many of the things I value most about myself were enhanced, directly or indirectly, by my early experiences and challanges. I don’t think I am at the point were I readily accept the benefit, or am in any way grateful for my trauma. I spent 40+ years of my life violently angry at everyone (God included) about my plight in life. In the past 10 years with marriage, children, and a fresh relationship with a loving and positive God, I feel a lot of sincere graitude for His gifts; but I have sort of disassociated my trauma in our new relationship. I just have left it out of the equation as I look at my new life with Him. One of these days I will need to take it all to Him and work through it. I know it is all in His plan, and at this stage I am running on simple faith that I will understand why He made the choices He did for me.

  2. Fred Vanderbom Post author

    Getting and keeping head and heart in synch is a challenge for all of us, and I’ve probably had a fairly easy ride as my trauma has been mild in comparison with what many others have had to cope with. Despite being Calvinists, my parents never blamed God for their hurts and never thanked God for pain in the way some people do. I’ve also been able to keep God out of my pain somehow. I hear myself say rather often that apart from Jesus Christ, God is largely a mystery to us (and certainly to me), as is the origin of our broken world. So I’ve put the reason why a mollusc is irritated by a grain of sand in the “too hard” basket but try to be positive about the pearl that has grown around it. Not sure whether all this adds up for you, Mark… wouldn’t it be fun to talk about it some time!
    I am heartened by the real progress I’ve made since young adulthood in understanding and managing my trauma, even though I can still feel it. No doubt we do learn, our hormones slow, and I’d like to think that as a result we grow in wisdom as well as years. This is my pearl.

  3. Wendy

    Great discussion, you guys. My scar has definitely become a pearl. It’s a gift that has set in motion this new leap from my community college teaching career to this PTSD Awareness/Writing as Healing public speaking/teaching gig. With regard to my early surgery, I am under the impression that I chose this path. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But I am of the mind that we do choose our lives, and that Spirit or God or our Soul is the co-creator of this experience. Each of us are here for a purpose and we are here to discover that purpose and carry it out. My understanding is very recent as I, too spent many years absolutely furious about this wound I’d been given early on. I have felt a lot of anger and self-hate and lived years and years fueled on fear and fury at myself for having been born so imperfectly and created so many problems for everyone. So to realize all that was, in a sense, living in illusion or ignorance, is a hard pill to swallow. That’s me, anyway. We all have our different understandings of the why or how our difficulty came to be. One thing’s for sure – because of our pearl, we have a unique vantage point and can help others in ways that others can’t. This ability alone is a gift and ties us to humanity in a special way. We are beautiful people with a lot to give and receive. Thanks, both of you, for being here, for having been born, for our communion together.

  4. Fred Vanderbom Post author

    Thanks for your Comment, Wendy, and I’m so glad you also can increasingly recognise the pearl rather than the invader. The path of growing understanding you mention is one I am climbing also. However, I find it hard to grasp what you are thinking of when you write, “I am of the mind that we do choose our lives and that Spirit or God or our Soul is the co-creator of this experience.” Whilst I feel almost fully responsible for the life choices of which I am aware, I hold a list of other factors responsible for my course before then: my parents, genes, environment, time and place on planet Earth, etc. As a child, I was both fascinated by and ashamed of my scar, but can’t remember blaming anybody. If you have posted more of your thoughts on this, let me know! Otherwise you’re welcome to explain here, or wait till when we can talk about this. With the other 95% I am in full agreement.


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