Posted by: nieophyte | October 18, 2007

When Loving You is Killing Me

Not too long ago, I came across a fascinating article in the New Yorker about Lesch-Nyhan syndrome, a rare disease that causes subjects to mutilate themselves in horrible ways. The article opens with the story of a four-and-a-half-year-old boy named Matthew, who wears mittens year round to keep from biting his fingers off. Matthew’s older brother, who also suffers from the disease, has already bitten off parts of his fingers and lips, and is prone to tantrums that oft end in unbelievable violence (exposed thigh, dinner fork, multiple stitches). While cures are being researched and tested with some success, most diagnosed with Lesch-Nyhan syndrome learn to live in constant fear of themselves.

For most, the physical realities of this disease are beyond comprehension. But the writer bridges the gap between reader and subject by pointing out some of the self-destructive qualities found in very common bad habits. I, for one, am a nervous nail-biter. My undergrad roommate’s Uncle chews his cuticles until they bleed. My sister enjoys poking her gums with a toothpick, just to feel that satisfying sting of pain. Simply crank each of those habits up a couple dozen notches, and you’ve got Lesch-Nyhan syndrome.

As I read, I couldn’t help but also connect the implications of this disease with matters of the heart. If our nail biting and cuticle chewing betray an odd tendency to want to break skin with teeth and feel physical pain, then the abuse we often put our hearts through must point to something similarly illogical and habitual.

Why, for example, is it so darn easy to dole out sound advice to others and simultaneously turn a deaf ear to those very same words of advice when applied to our own missteps? Why is it so easy to see how stupid your friend is being for staying with her dead-beat boyfriend, but impossible to see that your own idiot boyfriend is equally incorrigible? Why, in the words of Paul, do we not do the things that we want, but do the very things we hate?

It seems to me that while we would hope to point to some sort of self-less motive behind self-destructive behavior, if we got right down to the bottom of it, we’d discover that the pain we put ourselves through is often committed with incredibly selfish desires. Paul continues in Romans 7 by saying that it is no longer “I who does it, but sin that dwells within me,” concluding that the desire to hurt ourselves is habitual, because sin is habitual.

If only we could learn a little something from those who have trained themselves to live with Lesch-Nyhan syndrome. Towards the end of the New Yorker piece, an older gentleman with Lesch-Nyhan, in the middle of an interview with the reporter, stops talking, grips his arm and yells to his nurse: “I’m about to do something. Help.” Out of the corner of his eye, the reporter can see the man’s hand contract into a fist, undoubtedly preparing to punch himself. Upon asking for help, however, the man is quickly restrained, the episode passes and all is well.

Lesch-Nyhan survivors train their minds to read their own impulses, and at the slightest sign of self-destruction, they call to others for protection against their own hands. Likewise, could we learn to identify our own spiritual weaknesses that lead to a bruised heart or wounded spirit, and be willing to turn to our fellow brothers and sisters for help? Could we come to know ourselves well enough to sense the onset of our vices? Could we be vulnerable enough to share these vices with one another, and in so doing, discover true koinonia?



  1. great write; was listening to a sermon by francis chan the other day (on his site under media: entitled ‘when we enjoy sin more than god’ (or something near enough) – when i realized just how important community, more specifically accoutability, is. interestingly, the sermon (a great one, btw!) was not about this issue at all. in fact, his solution to the temptation of sin was not community but rather ‘falling in love with god more.’ but the way i see it is that such is only half the solution. the other half is unrelentingly surrounding ourselves with soldiers of accountabilty who will fight with us and for our purity and integrity.

    amen, nieophyte, to koinonia!

    ps: you reminded me that i have to email my friend … for myself. thx!

  2. the self-destructive nature… i never understood it. but perhaps there is something carnal about pain.

    i’m not a nail-biter, or a gum-stabber, or anything like that. but one thing i do is that when there’s something wrong on my body, i poke and prod it until it hurts. why? because i want to feel SOMETHING. and pain is something that i can control.

    pleasure is not as controllable. it takes external stimulus. it requires something good happening to us, and we go around seeking it out everywhere. and pleasure-seeking isn’t the answer.

    but maybe there’s something about self-inflicted pain is rooted in the desire to feel SOMETHING and to be the one in control of it.

    “yeah you bleed just to know you’re aliiive”

    then again, i’m no shrink and i don’t know anything about this stuff. all i know is that when i get a zit, or a blister, or a mouth sore, i want to pop, cut, shred it just because it’s my way of exerting control over it.

    but then, your example of giving others advice while we stumble down a broken path portrays a different side, and the battle in Paul’s heart also portrays that. somewhere in the deepness of self-pain is selfishness. weird to think about it that way.

    good post.

  3. That word accountability. What does it really mean? Why not aim for genuine friendship and love in a community of faith rather than using a business term to describe how people should lovingly guide one another? In, accountability means the state of being accountable, liable, or answerable. I would want to do away with words that carry connotations of guilt.

    Is the older patient accountable to the nurse he screams in panic to? I would highly doubt it. He’s depending, trusting, and relying on the nurse.

    anyway, nieo thank you for this powerful entry.

  4. oh and something else hit me. this might be a little too deep and the thought hasn’t fully formed and i haven’t slept for 27 hours or so…

    but could it be that the desire for pain is actually something of a reflection of what’s RIGHT? could it be that written on our spiritual DNA is not only selfishness, covetousness, etc. (sinful nature), and also not only peace, love and joy (edenic nature, the “image of God”)… but on TOP of that, could it be that we have instincts that know that sometimes pain is what lies on the path to something good? could it be this third instinct, the instinct of the Cross, that we have too often mistaken into masochism and the glorification of pain itself? could it be that someone intelligently DESIGNED us to follow in the footsteps of suffering and difficulty, to the extent that perhaps some quality of that vein was planted in us?

    God doesn’t want us to hurt ourselves for the sake of hurting ourselves. that’s true masochism. but could it be that He wanted to also plant in our subconscious a notion that sometimes you have to go through pain to image the likeness of a suffering savior?

    i mean hey. when there’s canker sores in my mouth, i take salt water or high-alcohol scope and swish it around really good. the sensation of that sting doesn’t physically feel any different at all, but the knowledge that something good is happening by me sterilizing my mouth makes that pain seem… i dunno. a propos.

    maybe it’s conditioned, but maybe it’s an instinct that we’re born with… to be utterly trite and cliche:

    maybe everyone knows that “no pain, no gain”. the twisting comes in when people mistake the pain for gain itself.

    maybe i just need a whole lot more sleep.

  5. I’m not sure how I feel about the idea that we were “intelligently designed” to walk the path of suffering. The world is a fallen place and humans are born into it. I would tend to believe that the deepest desires of humanity are perfectly realized in the Trinity.

    I’m wondering, however, if all prophecies of suffering and the suffering of Jesus himself were wrapped in His “DNA.” Could they just be the chosen path that needed to be taken in order to show the ultimate reality of our fallen-ness? If pain and suffering are wrapped in our DNA and if we are but a cracked representation of the Beauty of the Trinity, then I’m uncomfortable.

    Therefore, I believe “sacrifice” is a better perspective. Sacrifice is slightly, or deathly, painful.

  6. First of all, I love how society has become one of diagnosis through observation (that was stated with sarcasm). Because a group displays similar tendencies, a label should be appropriated to that group to justify their negative habits of the mind and of the body. What bologna! Did you know that there’s also a disease called Hwa (Anger) Disease diagnosed for Korean men because they display high levels of temper as a collective group.

    I think it’s time that we call things what they really are. I am not saying that all dieases are without merit or without justification; but you will find that kids even use “diseases” like a.d.d. and justify their disruptive behavior in school. Did you know that a.d.d. mirrors the symptoms of malnourishment in developing nations? Eating our McDonald’s, chips, and junk foods as well as preservative spiked vegetables and fruits is filling us without nourishing us. We are stuffed and malnourished at the same time – who would’ve though!? On top of that, cooking methods are removing over 90% of the nutrition that is left over after all the chemical spray ons and evolutions that take place. So, where am I going with this… ?

    We have become a society that loves to pass the buck onto something else – usually big business or political powers in play. We don’t want to take responsibility because it requires us to practice self-discipline in a world where if you are the victim, people will cater to your every need. We don’t exercise reason because we are barraged with thousands of messages from advertisements, to television, to over hearing conversations of whatever as we take a stroll. We feel as if the world takes us from one day to the next and we don’t need to do anything about it because we have grown accustomed to adapting through laziness.

    Forget it all, here are the reasons why people are in the condition they are in today (a little over-generalized, but generalizations help us understand the world a little more completely without myopia)
    1. Bad Parenting – I will bet anything that the kids who display these issues have bad parents (who don’t know how to appropriately raise their children with love or set boundaries and discipline their kids). I personally think that all bad parents should be put on an island forced to parent and be parented by another to show how terrible they really are. What do you think?
    2. Lack of expectations – This is the biggest reason. People need to re-define normal. It doesn’t help that society is trying to re-create a new ‘post’ condition of “ghettoization” in which there can only be communities with their respective practices and internal goods. Without a common standard with their primary conditions and secondary conditions to operate by, how the heck are we really supposed to get along, support, and love each other? One of the four reasons women settle is because they don’t know what to expect in a man. The parallel can be made.
    3. Thinking for a change – People need to really think outside of themselves once again. I hate to use this term, but a utilitarianism of sorts is necessary. Let’s lay out a baseline of common good and then go from there. It already exists, people just need to become more aware of it. People just don’t use reason to get anywhere anymore. All they do is rationalize themselves to death, experiencing a validation in the way they feel without any purpose beyond feeling – it’s an addicting narcissism of sorts. Reason exists to be used.
    4. The pain of discipline – no one wants to experience pain. There is always a reason why people put themselves through pain – and sometimes in their minds, physical pain = pleasure. Other times, they place themselves through emotional pain because they don’t have EXPECTATIONS of what things could be like or how they could be better. But in the end, in order to grow (which everyone can agree with as a universal goal of life), we need to experience the pains of growth. These pains are not negative, but like stretching, and with end and a better outcome. People simply need to exercise discipline regardless of how difficult and painful it is for the sake of growth which leads to a higher quality of life and contribution to society.
    5. Emotional Intelligence – the condition of our emotional healths in society today is pathetic. People display traits of infantilism well into their 40’s today. Narcissism and selfishness reign high and a personal-significance-driven ambition drives people to become experts in everything that will help them gain status in life to the best of their abilities so that they can hide their lack of character and maturity. Just look around at the control freaks, drama-queens/kings, psychotically jealous, and emotionally insecure people in the world – you (the reader) might be one of them. The blog shows that people need to learn how to develop their response protocol instead of reacting with a raw instinct in cases that aren’t life and death.
    6. True community – in the end, we cannot live without acknowledgment. the very fact that people with Lesch-Nyhan, can call out to someone for help shows that they are truly trying to reach out and find acknowledgment for who they are by what they are going through. If we cannot find acknowledgment in healthy ways on this earth, people will do incredible things to be acknowledged and accepted in other ways. Just look around at how people dress like their friends, or how people love to talk about themselves, or how people go to certain jobs because of status or prestige. People need acknowledgment and will go to great lengths to find it.

    OK, I don’t know if this made sense. I hate proofreading so someone can do it for me. Hope I was coherent. 🙂

    No Name Ray

  7. Dang, that was a long response… sorry.

  8. well

    sacrifice is maybe the better word, i guess. i think it’s the process of enduring pain.

    in an unbroken world, pain doesn’t make sense. but in a broken one, it’s actually the endurance of pain that resembles spiritual rightness more than its absence. i just wonder if that orientation is somehow written on our souls, but people twist it into masochism instead.

    (and this wasn’t in response to the nonameray comment, which was very apt and to which i have no response.)

  9. ana… re: your first response.

    thinking about your talk about pleasure seeking, and how pain is the only thing that’s more readily available and controllable…. I wonder if sex, porn, & masturbation are one of the few ways that pleasure is most readily available and controllable… and that’s why it’s so rampant in our culture.

  10. i have a comment for nonameray –

    my dad is a child psychiatrist. he sees patients every day who have A.D.D.. so, according to you, either my dad is a hoax and he’s benefiting from his practice by diagnosing a fake disease, or you are a hoax in that you claim to know something about A.D.D. but you don’t. so for you to say that we’ve created this thing called A.D.D. in order to excuse our children from their behavior is ridiculous. i wish i could comment on the comparison you bring up between ADD and malnourishment in underdeveloped countries, but after rereading your comment a million times, i still don’t get what you’re trying to say. are kids with ADD in america malnourished? if kids here stopped eating junk food, would they get ADD?

    anyway. as for your reasons for why humanity has problems, i have a few comments. first of all, for you to say that our society tends to “pass the buck” on to someone else, i find it ironic that your first reason is that we have bad parents. am i messed up? well, it’s my parents’ fault. what you probably mean when you talk about parents is that the environment in which a child grows up heavily influences his/her development. but you don’t want to say that, because then his/her problems will just become a function of “big businesses or political powers in play”, along with bad parents, lack of opportunities for low-income families, etc. in other words – some problems really are someone else’s fault. we affect one another. that’s reality.

    “one of the four reasons women settle is because they don’t know what to expect in a man.” there are four reasons that women settle? there are probably a lot more. and, to use this “argument” as a basis for your second reason is pretty weak. women settling for their man isn’t the worst thing that could happen, unless you believe that there’s that one perfect person out there in the world for you that God’s been preparing from the beginning of time (sarcasm). and anyway, i’d say that too much fanciful expectation is the real problem. we expect our partners to fill so much of us emotionally, financially, errmmm physically, and when they don’t live up to those expectations, we run into problems. if we revamped our expectations so that women never “settle”, what would probably happen is that we’ll find that nobody lives up to our expectations, not even ourselves, and that life isn’t what we expected and we kill ourselves.

    3 – thinking for a change. huh?? is that, “thinking, for a change”, or “thinking to make a difference”? “people don’t use reason… they just rationalize themselves to death”. lol! don’t you need reason to rationalize?

    4 – dude. you say no one wants to experience pain… but there’s always a reason people put themselves through pain, and for some people it is pleasurable??? yes, we do need to experience pain in order to grow from certain situations. but i think that’s just a necessary part of growth, and that we shouldn’t desire pain as if all pain leads to growth. should we desire miscarriages so that the grieving mother will become a better person in the end? no, pain is like being in a fire. our response is what makes that fire destructive or refining.

    well, i’ve proof-read as much of your post as i could. as for the actual post, i’d agree with dan that accountability is too one-sided. even if we were all diseased and all nurses at the same time, i’d say we’re much better at being diseased than being nurses because it takes no effort to be diseased, but even the process of nursing can be riddled with sin. and for that reason, i’d rather not put myself out there when i know we’re all messed up, yet there’s this feel of personal holiness that people cling to. it just looks like self-righteousness.

    sometimes, i don’t think the nurses in our churches know they’re messed up, especially in areas of self-righteousness. i would probably love those same nurses if they just fessed up and said, “man… i’m an arrogant bastard!” and i in turn would confess my sins to them.

  11. re: chris rue’s comment…

    really mature use of verbage chris rue. but that’s ok, i like a heated debate. i can be immature too.

    1. hoax of a.d.d. – i got the research off of a christian radio show that was trying to get to the bottom of how society has changed and how diagnosing “diseases” has affected america. so based on the research that they we’re citing, i would have to say that your dad is the hoax. sorry to say it, but i’d much rather believe people who have taken the time to extensively study add than people who just diagnose it for a paycheck. i’m sure he does good, but hey, let’s be real, you started a verbal war and i’m glad to give it to you. let me correct you on a few other things… but if kids started eating healthier and exercising, i’d be willing to bet that a great majority of them wouldn’t have this so called a.d.d.

    2. one of the greatest lessons anyone can learn chris rue is to seek clarity before assuming yourself to shame. you might want to learn it. i guess the reason why i left the disclaimer at the end of my post was because i knew some idiot would try and go word by word without really getting to the heart of the message. let me teach you a lesson that stephen covey would be proud for you to learn… seek first to understand before trying to be understood. and since i am the one “under fire” i guess i can speak in defense. 🙂 bad parents exist. the reason i wrote that was two fold 1. so that any reader could actually realize that bad parents do exist (which many oddly dont) and 2. they themselves would strive for a higher standard. i placed that comment in there more so that people would be motivated to be a good parent than to blame their parents for their messed up habits and thoughts – which might explain the whole “society that passes the buck” statement.
    i didn’t say that we didn’t affect one another. learn to read before speaking (or typing in this case). let me give you some insight through research… dr. masten, a psychologist did studies on resiliency. guess what she found – it didn’t really matter what the environment was, the way people think determined whether people ended up “normal” or not. she found that in the end, it was the way one thought and processed the information that was the ultimate factor. and guess what, everyone was born with a brain and thanks to the internet, we have countless exposure to “success tips.” you can thank yahoo and google for that.

    3. now, being sarcastic doesn’t really get you anywhere except having someone put you in your place. first of all, women settling is a huge problem in society. in fact, it’s so big that its one of the reasons why men aren’t men anymore (if you didn’t understand that phrase, go ahead and ask me and i can explain it in more simple terms). and since men aren’t men, we lack the leaders, examples, and pace setters that this world desperately needs. and women do only settle because of four reasons… which you can end up breaking down into subsets, but that’s a whole different topic. in the end, the point was made in that people have such low standards and expectations of morality, life, responsibility, selflessness, and development that we are in the condition that we are in. the second part of your statement, is true, but then again, if you asked for clarity instead of attempted your best at trying to come off as intelligent, then you would’ve found that i would’ve said the same thing if expectations were used in an unhealthy way in relationships. but being sophomoric usually makes us blind to reality. it’s ok. i think we were all there at one point in our underdeveloped lives.

    4. reason, if you actually take a good study of the word will bring you to an objective standard. rationalization is great for the moral relativist who is stupid enough to think that nothing is right or wrong. semantics may be a bitch, but guess what, sometimes they will eat you alive. think before you express yourself next time – you don’t want your panties to get all twisted up like it did this time. oh, and no, you don’t need reason to rationalize, you just need a brain that can create thought.

    5. regarding pain – you made three claims in response to that. i will address each of them, genius. growth always has pain tied to it buddy. your analogy of the miscarriage and the grieving mother is a fallacy. go to school, you might learn something. displine is painful. if we could only pursue pleasure, we would never do anything that made us uncomfortable, or grow in our personal lives, we would never practice self-control, or be willing to delay our gratification. never did i say that pain wasn’t a necessary part of growth, but some people have twisted perversions of pain (google something called masochism). the only intelligent thing you said was something i said in different words in your entire post, and that is “pain is like being in a fire. our response is what makes that fire destructive or refining.” I said, “But in the end, in order to grow (which everyone can agree with as a universal goal of life), we need to experience the pains of growth. These pains are not negative, but like stretching, and with end and a better outcome. People simply need to exercise discipline regardless of how difficult and painful it is for the sake of growth which leads to a higher quality of life and contribution to society.” Mmm…. makes you sound like an idiot trying to use my argument to refute me. Maybe you need glasses or contacts. I don’t know.

    in response to your desire for someone to reduce their ego so that you could feel “safe” to confess your sins to them… people grow in community and in vulnerability. guess what? it takes someone of humility to be the first to acknowledge that they are in sin. instead of quietly judging that everyone is in sin and assuming that anyone who you don’t know is in sin, why don’t you be the first to approach another instead of waiting for them to tell you that they aren’t perfect. take the plank out of your own eye first… it’s biblical.

    now, knowing simple minded people, you have already drawn the conclusion that i am the arrogant nurse. grow up.

    i have my communities and relationships of vulnerability. i don’t condemn, it’s not my right. i will make moral judgments about one’s actions or beliefs though without devaluing their existence and humanity. i will also straighten out someone i love if they are deviating from the right path. now, before you get all over zealous and excited about me not proofreading this post as well, maybe you might want to take the time to seek clarity first the next time around. my knowledge of you is your post and your post tells me you are an idiot… but i am sure there is much more to you than your stupidity. if you feel a need to be heard, go talk to your dad – i’m sure he can help you by prescribing you some pills. 🙂

    in the end, no harm, no foul. i hope you can take what you dished out. after all, i don’t write this with hate or resentment – just with a smile on my face that you have just experience a rude awakening that is probably making you angry as you read these final words. smile, somebody somewhere loves you.

  12. wow, that one was even longer than my other one…

  13. And with that, I will officially close the discussion on this post.

    While the creators of this blog are in favor of spirited, and even heated, discussion, the nature of some of the comments above are not in line with the vision of this online community.

    One of my favorite anecdotes from the history of theological debate is of the intense argument between Karl Barth and Emil Brunner over natural theology. In response to Brunner’s treatise on natural theology, Barth responded swiftly with a paper entitled, “Nein!” or “No!”. Thus began a series of debates, out of which emerged some of the best writing we have from both of them.

    Years later, as Brunner lay on his deathbed, legend has it that Barth sent a letter saying how much he loved and respected the work Brunner created in his time. Barth closed that letter with 2 Corinthians 1:20: “For all the promises of God find their ‘Yes’ in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our ‘Amen’ to God for his glory.”

    Friends, let us continue in our spirited debate, for as iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another. But let us always, always do it with the utmost kindness, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.

  14. Thank you, nieophyte, for closing the discussion. It makes me uncomfortable that we would bother to use the words “biblical” while arguing others are “stupid” or an “idiot.”

    And if we’re going to cite research, let’s be aware that research for ADD and resiliency is quite inconclusive as a host of “results” leaning in both directions. Not to mention the fact that quantitative and qualitative measures for resiliency are hotly debated.


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