REVIEWED BY Doug Koop
Endearing Pain: Life Lessons
from MS Afflictions
By Colleen Peters
Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2016.
130 pages, $18
I’m either well qualified to review this book of theologically-informed reflections on living with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), or too engaged to comment fairly. For at least two reasons, I’m inclined to take Endearing Pain personally.
For starters, MS has had a big impact in my own household. My wife, Margaret, was diagnosed with the disease back in 1997, and now formally qualifies as a disabled person. Lately we’ve been relying on assistance from provincial home care.
Beyond that, I am also acquainted with the author, Colleen Peters, whose email circulars on the progress of her disease have been regular reading material for me for some years. Although it’s a bit of a stretch to call her a friend (we don’t hang out together), we have met on several occasions and correspond amicably from time to time.
All of us live in Winnipeg, which is an epicenter of MS, a mysterious disease with more manifestations and permutations than a hydra with a headache. For Colleen, the MS journey involves a great deal of intractable pain – copious amounts of hurt that make her “peevish” and cause her to worry that she’ll become unlovable to her family and the people closest to her.
It’s this aspect of Colleen’s writing that is deeply attractive and potentially beneficial to those who enter her work. Her ability to be personally vulnerable, to confront her weaknesses with raw candour and lay bare her deepest fears, is helpful because readers can identify with these fundamentally human responses.
She brings a welcome humility to the discussion of her circumstances, surrendering reluctantly to the unwelcome work of MS in her body without allowing the disease’s degrading effects to overwhelm her spirit.
Even though she feels she is “dying by inches,” she defaults to an attitude – a coping mechanism – that is divinely inspired. “I am ill, and God is good, and loves me exceedingly.” This is a truth she clings to, even though it clearly is not an easy posture to sustain.
“As my body succumbs to the malevolence of MS, I must make certain in my mind that if I permit it, my Creator will give purpose to my pain; and trust that in the picture [God] sees, my pain is not in vain.”
Colleen sets other steep challenges for herself as she wrestles with her disease. She expresses gratitude for a long list of things that bring a “huge collective happiness into her life” (family, prayer, books, etc.), and springboards from there to a deeper desire. “I want to embrace, not simply endure, whatever suffering there is along the path I am on.”
This is the “endearing pain” of the title, a dogged determination to see the dross of pain and distress somehow refined into the gold of spiritual maturity.
To that end, she leans heavily on the work of spiritual writers including C.S. Lewis, Frederick Buechner, Richard Foster, Henri Nouwen, Julian of Norwich, and many more. Her suffering has driven her to contemplation, and these folk are among her truest guides.
One of the hallmarks of MS is its uncertainty. The disease seems to run a different course in every person it affects. It’s marked by bad days and better days, and the measure of good or worse keeps changing.
Being able to continue to run encouraged Colleen, even as the distance she could cover got smaller, the time it took grew longer, and the number of times she tumbled increased. “How long will I be able to run, or to walk, for that matter? I don’t know the answer to those questions. The fear of not knowing what the future holds for us can be very strong, and unless a way is found to ease it, that fear can overwhelm us.”
She finds wisdom in a line from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (a Hollywood version of a well-known quote from Julian of Norwich). “There is an old saying that says, ‘Everything will be alright in the end.’ So if it is not all right, it is not yet the end.”
Colleen’s Christian faith is her bedrock. “My suffering, though not understandable, is meaningful and can be trusted to the God who suffered for me…and who, through suffering, will conquer evil and ultimately make all things new.” TAP
–Doug Koop is a spiritual care provider at a major trauma hospital in Winnipeg. The former editor of ChristianWeek also contributes freelance articles to a variety of church and mainstream publications.