Repacking the Bearings

The Separatists (later known as “Pilgrims”) who founded Plymouth Colony in 1620 were not known for gaiety. Roughly half of the Mayflower’s 102 passengers who survived the first few months in wintry Massachusetts took it as an article of faith that gratitude gets people through grief. Dr. Paul Brand took gratitude a step further, showing how science supports this scriptural view. It’s worth remembering this Thursday.

The Pilgrims were not a grim lot. But they believed there was more to be gained from gratitude than gaiety. It’s why they recognized three ceremonies: the weekly Sabbath, the Day of Humiliation and Fasting, and the Day of Thanksgiving and Praise. The latter two occurred on weekdays—usually the day of special sermons known as Lecture Day, which was Thursday in Massachusetts.

The Thanksgiving ceremony was deemed especially appropriate after losing half of their original colony in the first year. The settlers called for a dinner including fowl and deer. The famous feast was shared with about 90 Wampanoag Indians. In the only surviving firsthand account of the meal, Edward Winslow describes it this way: “Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors.” The four in one day killed enough fowl to serve the company almost a week. Winslow closed with this: “Although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

Seeing plenty in the midst of the pain of losing so many was remarkable. The Pilgrim’s gratitude was grounded in scripture’s command to continually give thanks in all things. One particular story indicates how gratitude gets people though grief. In Luke 17:11-19, ten lepers called out to Jesus while they kept their distance. “Jesus, have mercy on us!” He told them to show themselves to the priests—a sign that they were healed. All ten lepers did so, and as they went, they were healed. Yet only one came back, expressing gratitude. Jesus asked, “Were not ten healed? Where are the nine?” Then Jesus told the one grateful leper something remarkable: “Your faith has healed and saved you.” Saved?

The story is familiar, but the science behind what the savior knew was unknown for centuries. From time immemorial, leprosy was imagined to be a curse. The horrible disfiguring of the flesh and the rotting away of tissues was often seen as a sign of God’s judgment. In light of this, lepers were shunned and shoved aside by society. The pioneering work of Seattle surgeon Paul Brand would change all that.

Brand was born in India in 1914 to British missionary parents. Growing up, he saw firsthand the horrible effects of leprosy. But Brand was the first physician to discover that leprosy was actually a disease, the destruction of nerve endings that made sufferers susceptible to injury. The rotting away of tissues was due to the loss of the sensation of pain. Lepers would routinely place their hands on hot stoves or smash fingers with hammers. The loss of pain in the limbs meant the eventual loss of those limbs.

Brand’s story is told in his 1993 book, Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants, co-authored with Philip Yancey. Brand says he “learned about pain not systematically, but experientially,” initially observing the absence of pain in his Indian leprosy patients. For over 50 years, he pioneered the development of artificial pain sensors so that lepers would not mutilate themselves. In one particularly wrenching story, Brand recalls an experimental sensor that was connected to the ankle of a leper who had repeatedly broken the joint. As the happy leper walked away, his ankle snapped again. The sensor had failed. Yet he kept walking, feeling nothing. Brand concluded that to live without pain is to live in constant peril. He became grateful for pain, seeing pain and gratitude as inextricably linked.

When Jesus healed the ten lepers, he introduced them to a life of physical pain. Only one leper evidenced any gratitude, “saving” him from cynicism. The other nine were in peril. Pain was now inevitable yet they evidenced no gratitude.

I married into a family that has suffered more than it’s fair share of physical pain. My wife Kathy’s mother contracted rheumatoid arthritis in her early fifties. She lives in constant pain yet is always grateful. Kathy’s Aunt Kate saw her husband and son-in-law die in a tragic accident. Yet she was one of the more gracious women I ever knew. Now Kathy’s aunts are passing off the scene one by one. When her Aunt Pearl died, we inherited her 1961 Buick LeSabre. Keeping it running keeps her memory fresh. Recently, “The Pearl” needed the front wheel bearings repacked. That’s routine maintenance in older cars. If you wait until grit is grinding in the bearings, it’s too late. Gratitude is repacking the wheel bearings before the grit is grinding you up. I married into a family of gracious people, “saved” from cynicism in the midst of real pain. It’s a lesson I need to remember.

The Englishman Samuel Johnson said people more often need to be reminded than informed. Paul Brand discovered the more people are inoculated against pain, the less they can tolerate it. It’s worth remembering that Americans consume well over 95 percent of the pain-killing drugs available in the world. As a result, Americans have the lowest pain tolerance of all countries in the world since attitudes towards pain greatly influence the use of drugs. Pain is a gift, but nobody wants it. The guarantor of getting through grief is gratitude. That’s something the Pilgrims knew and Americans ought to remember this Thanksgiving.

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5 Comments

  1. What a beautiful personal account of your family…thanks for reminding me of Paul Brand’s work and insights this Thanksgiving season.

  2. very timely, very insightful. america does have its drawbacks. we are so immuned we lose half our lives! happy(gratified) thanksgiving!

  3. Pain is your body’s way of reminding you that you are still alive. May America bless God this Thanksgiving Day!

  4. Americans “ought” to remember but it is not what “is”…”the guarantor of getting through grief is gratitude” ..I don’t know Mike..I think you told me it we grieve so much because we love so deeply

  5. We live in a culture that is saturated with a media culture that says pain is a problem that can be solved, beauty can be be bought and preserved and gratification should never be postponed. In that environment the gift of pain often seems like, “eat your vegetables.”
    Mike, I have been reading your blog now for just a few months and have profited greatly. I read your bio and realize we have some mutual friend; Jim Hiskey and the current pastor your old church in Annapolis, small world. Keep up the great work.

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