17/08/2008

The Gift of Pain (by Philip Yancey and Paul Brand)

I very much like Philip Yancey's books, which I started reading over ten years ago. He is one of the clearest modern Christian writers, who writes in a way that often mirrors ways I had begun to think about topics, expressing his thoughts honestly and openly, in an unusual but very encouraging way.

I was particularly impressed with two books he wrote with the late Dr Paul Brand, which were combined in the volume 'In the Likeness of God'. So while in the UK in the summer, I ordered the third book which they wrote together, 'The Gift of Pain' from Amazon UK.

I've been reading it, a bit at a time, for the past three weeks or so. Like the others, it's written from Paul Brand's first person perspective with plenty of anecdotes and some autobiographical details alongside more general thoughts and explanations.

The main thesis is that pain is an invaluable part of our nervous system; to demonstrate this, the first part of the book charts much of Dr Brand's early life, and his calling into medicine and - eventually - working with a leprosy mission in India as an orthopaedic surgeon. I had already read his biography, 'Ten Fingers for God', less than a year ago; so some of the material was not new to me. Nonetheless, it was written in such an interesting way that I didn't skim; there were extra reminiscences and asides which, as ever, were fascinating to read. There were also several medical histories which I had not previously read about.

Having shown what a nightmare a totally painless life can be (leprosy patients can lose fingers, even entire limbs because their lack of pain sensors mean they do not notice splinters or extreme heat) and how important it is to listen to our pain, the final section of the book looks at the real problems that do beset people with long-term severe pain. There are suggestions for coping, explanations about how pain actually works, and ideas for encouraging people to deal with pain naturally, as far as possible, rather than simply reaching for a pain-relief tablet.

In the course of this, there are comparisons made between the generally affluent West and the impoverished parts of the East, with some surprising conclusions drawn. Those who deal with pain on a daily basis, often taking it for granted, and living in extreme poverty, often seem to be more contented (and more able to deal with extreme pain) than those who live in comfort, surrounded by medication and all the money they need.

The style is excellent, the anecdotes well chosen and well-flowing, and the whole a very thought-provoking book. The Christian emphasis is low-key, making it a book that could be of interest to anyone, whatever their beliefs.

Highly recommended.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 17th July 2008

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