The problem of pain is personal for Shane

New students at Alphacrucis, Australia’s large Pentecostal college, must feel that reality is more complicated than they thought when the Deputy Principal Shane Clifton enters the lecture theatre in his wheelchair. Here, Elly and Shane Clifton tell the story of his accident.

October 7, 2010 – Elly Clifton Journal

Shane was hesitant to try the mega-jump on the skateboard. He had kept his vow never to skateboard again after fracturing his wrist earlier in the year, so he decided to use a bike instead, practising on the flat before tackling the ramp. He’d watched his boys take turn after turn, enjoying the thrill and landing softly. After a while, he decided to give it a shot. After all, what could go wrong when you’re landing in a foam pit? As he launched the bike off the end of the ramp, he went up and over and rotated forward as he fell into the pit. It looked like nothing at all, totally harmless, funny – I even laughed. We had no idea he’d injured himself until he called out, “I’ve broken my neck.”

October 7, 2010 – Shane Clifton Journal

I experienced some trepidation standing at the top of the jump, although no inkling of a catastrophe, merely an embarrassing hesitation. I wasn’t afraid. What was there to fear? A jump, then a landing into a soft foam pit? I’d seen athletes practising jumps into pits of this type, whose very purpose was to make falling safe. But I was nervous and a voice in my head reminded me, “You’re getting older. You’re turning forty.” So an activity like the mega-ramp, which previously would have given me no pause for thought, now had me feeling my age. I figured that was as good a reason as any to take the jump. And so I did. On the way down, I remember the feeling of my stomach making its way to my throat, and of having time to look ahead at the jump and wonder, “am I mad?” but the foam looked soft, and I was committed; so down, up, and down again … headfirst.

Shane Clifton

Shane Clifton Shane Clifton


I knew straightaway that I’d broken my neck.

I knew straightaway that I’d broken my neck. There was no temporary unconsciousness, no moment of wondering why my arms and legs wouldn’t respond, just a flash of nightmarish insight. I knew my life was irrevocably changed. The rising panic was palpable. I could taste it – a tangy bile on the back of my tongue. I called to Elly for help and tried to get my fear under control, forcing myself to take a breath and slow down. But the foam was in my face and I felt as though some alien force was pinning me down, denying me movement, smothering me. I gasped for air, still trying not to lose it.

I couldn’t see a thing, but I could hear Elly stumbling over the fence and into the pit, fighting through foam, calling to me, wanting to know whether I was OK. I could think of no answer, so as she carefully made her way over, I clenched my jaw and prayed with the “wordless groans”, the “incoherent grumblings” that Paul describes in Romans 8:26. When eventually she got to me, I begged to be lifted up and given room to breathe away from the stifling foam, but she refused and I felt momentarily betrayed. “You have to be still, my love,” she said, “I cannot move you, but I will clear the foam so you can take in some air.” She spoke deliberately, calmly, and her voice, along with her hand touching my face, eased my fear. I felt a surge of pride at her strength, and then my mind raced and I began to think of what this injury might mean for her, for us.

“I’m sorry,” I said, my voice cracking. “I’m so sorry. What have I done? Darling, I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be silly,” she replied. “I love you, and we’ll get through this together.”

But I couldn’t help myself, and we cried together as I went on apologising, like a drunk trapped in regret, unable to change the past and equally sure that tomorrow would bring more of the same.

The only good news: “thank God it wasn’t one of our boys,” I whispered to Elly.

When the paramedics arrived, (whether quickly or slowly I had no idea – time after the accident had no meaning) Elly moved aside and a man with a husky but reassuring voice took over, introducing himself as Chris. He stood behind me, his forearms clenched firmly along my head and neck, reaching down to my shoulders and keeping my spine rock-steady as the remainder of the team (and Elly) gingerly raised me to the surface of the foam and rolled my body onto the tray of the gurney. Other than an intense pain in my neck and Chris’ strong grip, I couldn’t see or feel what they were doing and it was some time before I realised that I’d escaped the foam.

My T-shirt read, “Trust me, I’m a doctor,” (a PhD in theology, not really useful in these circumstances) and we laughed at the irony.

While all this was going on, Chris distracted me with small talk, asking mundane details about my life, my family, my holiday – you know, the sort of conversation you might have with a friendly stranger at the beach. Inevitably, we got onto my job, and I gave the usual explanation:

“A theologian?”
 “Yeah. I teach people about faith.” 
“Oh, right.” 
“We discuss issues like the problem of pain – why bad things happen to good people.”
 The topic was a little too close to home, so we returned to more prosaic matters. My T-shirt read, “Trust me, I’m a doctor,” (a PhD in theology, not really useful in these circumstances) and we laughed at the irony.

Shane and Elly Clifton

Shane and Elly Clifton Shane Clifton

I’d never flown in a helicopter before, but this wasn’t the view I’d been hoping for – my bed at right angles to the nose of the aircraft, surrounded by six paramedics looking down on me like pallbearers staring at an open coffin.

I lay there as the living dead, an immobilised body capable of nothing but speech. Headphones were placed on my ears and the giro began winding up. Even with the ear protection the sound assaulted me, and the craft shook violently as we took off. Although I could see faces looking down on me, it was far too noisy to talk. I was completely alone. It felt like even God had abandoned me.

The trip was torture. It seemed interminable and the panic soon returned, but there was nothing to be done about it. I couldn’t sit up, run away, punch a wall, bury my head in a pillow, go back in time, plan a way forward. So my brain ran in circles and turned to mush as I cried and cried.

I had no idea where the helicopter landed. Accident and emergency I guess. I was strapped down, looking at the ceiling (or up the noses of my attendants), with no perspective on my surroundings, no sense of where I was. For the first time in my life I had no say about my next step. Chris and the paramedics said goodbye as I was handed over to the doctors and nurses, who asked the basics: name, birth-date, what happened? Little did I know, I’d have to repeat these details a thousand times over in the months to come. I never did come up with a creative answer, although I sometimes joked about my age … my favourite: “At forty, it takes longer to rest than it did to get tired.”

Soon after, a nurse bustled over with a pair of scissors and unceremoniously cut away my clothing (so much for my “trust me …” T-shirt). I guess I was naked, but I don’t remember caring or even thinking about it. I was given the pin test – poked from top to toe, hoping for a squeal. From my head down to my upper chest I had normal feeling, almost everywhere else I felt nothing (oddly, I could sense a toe being pricked and a spot on my bum).

It’s hard to describe what this feels like (or doesn’t feel like, as the case may be). It’s normally disability that’s the metaphor: she was blind drunk; he was paralytic! But this experience was brutally literal. It felt like I was paralysed from the neck down.

I spent some of the time praying, but found that I couldn’t finish my sentences, that I had no words to express my fears and hopes.

By and by, the doctors and nurses had done with their prodding and left me in peace. Well, not peace exactly. They let me be, but the emergency room was a train carriage bustling at peak hour … all stations to the city, medical personnel boarding and departing, and me with no way to get off. I was asked a few questions, but most of the time they talked about me; a cacophony of voices, sometimes speaking gibberish, other times speaking English, but at all times frightening. The word “tetraplegia” bounced off the walls and into my skull with an ominous cadence, like a ball bearing in a maze.

Next, I was prepped for scanning: X-ray, CT scan, and MRI. I was transferred from bed to gurney to machine and back, tasks performed like I was glass. Over the days to come, these tests were to become routine, but on this first night in hospital, closed off in machines that would forecast my destiny, the experience was religious – not an encounter with friend Jesus, but lying on an altar in the presence of a fearful God. I spent some of the time praying, but found that I couldn’t finish my sentences, that I had no words to express my fears and hopes. The MRI was the worst of the tests, one hour enclosed in a tube, being attacked with noise and light. Too scary for prayer – all I could do was grit my teeth till my jaw ached.

Eventually, the last test was completed, and a porter returned me to accident and emergency where another physician greeted me. Dr Lucy introduced herself as the registrar of the hospital’s spinal unit and the person who would oversee my care when I got out of the intensive care unit. She was blonde and attractive, a model wearing a stethoscope.

“Call me Lucy,” she said, but any infatuation on my part was quickly smothered by what she had to tell me. “We have the results of the scans, which show that you have broken your fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae (C4/5).”

It was an explanation with little meaning. “I heard the doctors use the word ‘tetraplegia.’ Is that what I have? What does it mean?”

“It’s another word for quadriplegia. You’ll be a quadriplegic.”

2011 New Year Theology

The problem of pain is the stuff of theology textbooks and not private journals, but given my situation, I am going to take the opportunity afforded by the journal to clarify my current thinking on this most complex of problems, especially as it applies to my situation. I certainly have the time, as the hospital seems to shut down for Christmas and into January, and with no rehab (grrr), I have the opportunity to think and write.

The problem of pain isn’t about pain, per se. Pain serves a purpose, which is to warn us of danger. This is obvious when it comes to spinal cord injury (SCI), where half of the trouble of the injury is the inability to feel certain types of pains. By way of example, one of my fellow inmates was watching a DVD on his computer, unaware that he was sitting on the power lead transformer. The subsequent burn (that he couldn’t feel) gave him an ulcer that forced him to spend two boring and uncomfortable months lying on his stomach.

The problem, then, is not pain, per se, but suffering; prolonged pain that serves no meaningful purpose. People normally imagine SCI as the loss of all sensation and movement, but in fact, normal sensation is replaced by nerve pain (that feels like burning skin), and the ability to decide what and when to move is traded for spasm, and uncontrolled bladder and bowel activity. The body still moves, but just in stupid ways.

As you can well imagine, it’s a disability that impacts every aspect of life: work, recreation, family relationships, and the myriad of social interactions.

The difficulty with this whole topic is working out what we mean when we say, “God is sovereign,” or, “God caused this.” We tend to think of God as a cosmic puppeteer, pulling the strings of creation in a magical and sometimes scary performance. In fact, Christian theology, in affirming God as creator, understands God as the ground of nature and natural laws – so that God works not as a magical puppeteer, but in and through natural processes.

This is vital, because it establishes our expectations. In answer to the question, “Why, God?” we have to face up to what it is to be human, to be a creature of the earth – to be born, to grow, to break down, and to die – to be limited in power, strength, and knowledge – to be fragile and vulnerable – to be constituted by DNA and imperfect genes, bones that flex and break, muscles that tear, and blood that spills.

I broke my neck because I’m human and our necks break when twisted badly, and I landed my pushbike upside down. To look for a deeper cause of my quadriplegia is silly, since it is to lose sight of who and what I am; a forty-year-old male who wishes he’d stayed off his bike, but who is incapable of going back in time.

I broke my neck because I’m human and our necks break when twisted badly, and I landed my pushbike upside down. To look for a deeper cause of my quadriplegia is silly, since it is to lose sight of who and what I am; a forty-year-old male who wishes he’d stayed off his bike, but who is incapable of going back in time.

One of the problems of modern society, with all of its medical wonders, is the implicit assumption that we’ll live forever in perfect health. We keep our dead and dying out of sight, we abort babies that don’t match our ideals of normalcy, we worship a Photoshopped image of beauty, and in consequence, suffering, disability, and fragility come as a complete and utter shock. In terms of SCI, we focus our attention and resources primarily on cure, but pay scant attention to the fact that most people will have to learn to live with a broken body.

The Christian equivalent is the Pentecostal faith preacher who assumes that God always rewards faith with perfect health (whatever that is). This view of faith is not only idiotic, it’s an evil, since it leaves people with disabilities feeling guilty for lack of faith, and worse, unloved by God. In fact, if we are not careful, prayer for healing can exacerbate the social problem of disability, by highlighting the fact that disabled people don’t belong.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am all for prayer, which is a wonderful expression of love and compassion. But we must be careful when and how we pray.

Please don’t be shy praying for me, but rather than focus on healing, pray for my wellbeing.

Shane is Dean of Theology at Alphacrucis College, Sydney.