Living with Pain: Must We?

It happens to all of us. At some point, we feel pain–whether physical, emotional, intellectual, or spiritual–and we want it to stop.

The proximate cause may be an accident, illness, or natural disaster; an act of cruelty or violence, indifference or discrimination. The event may be expected or timely or patently absurd. We seek reasons and explanations. We tell ourselves stories of why it had to happen, was bound to happen, or should not have happened. We call “it” evil. We wonder: how could any god worthy of the name permit this pain?

None of this scrambling, however, addresses the hard fact that pain is inevitable. It is not just that bad things happen sometimes to some people. Pain is inevitable. If we have a capacity to feel at all, we will feel pain.

Why must it be so?

Pain is inevitable because we humans are born needing to move without knowing how. We need to learn how to make the bodily movements—the patterns of sensing and responding—that will connect us with whomever and whatever will keep our hopelessly dependent selves alive.

By the time we are born, we have already been at work for months. We have been moving our bodily selves, triggering cascades of hormones in our mothers, and opening a large emotional, physical space within her in the shape of us. Once born, we grasp; we reach; we suck; we smile, learning to make the movements that draw others close.

Two allies guide our way: pleasure and pain. Pain is in some ways the greater of the two, for pain is a signal to move. We feel pain when we are stuck, hurt, frustrated, or blocked—unable to move in the ways we need and want to move so as to connect with others in life-enabling ways.

To be human, then, is to live a life in which our deepest pain arises in the context of those relationships that move us the most. To be human is to live a life in which the connections that best nourish our bodily becoming rend our hearts. It is to be someone who is vulnerable to pain in the same measure as she is open to the pleasure of connecting with herself, with others, and with the world.

So why bother? Why hold tight to a life in which pain is right smack in the center of the road? Couldn’t we simply move along a gradient of pleasure—from comfort to delight to bliss—and still learn what we need to learn about how to create life-enabling relationships?

We do bother. We do hold tight, and not because of any promise that pain will flee. No such promise is possible. However, it is possible to affirm the desire at the heart of our pain. It is possible to find in that desire the movement of life, moving in us. And it is possible to align ourselves with that current, so that that movement of life can keep creating, sustaining, and healing itself through us.

Unexpected, uninvited pain, if we can open to it, mobilizes resources in our bodily selves whose roots extend far beyond our conscious minds and put us in touch with the movement of life itself. This movement is always creating, always sustaining, and always expressing itself in the movement of our bodily selves.

This movement is at work in the skin that seals over a wound; the antibodies that swarm a virus, and the imaginative resources that disappointment triggers. This movement arises spontaneously as patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting that align us with the challenges of the moment. It is at work in our feelings of pain as those feelings impel us to move in ways that will help us adjust, evolve, and bring new realities to life.

My sensations of pain register as mine. They feel like mine. They grant me a sense of a “self” who feels this pain. Yet these feelings of pain are no more mine than the air I breathe. Pain is the movement of life, manifest in this particular space-time span of “me,” wanting more—more movement, more becoming, more life.

Sometimes, the pain won’t stop. Sometimes it grows strong enough to extinguish the life that feels it. Sometimes pain traumatizes us to such a degree that we lose the ability to feel or move at all. Sometimes, unraveling its mysteries takes years, even a lifetime, of nudging and stretching, ranting and exhorting, exploring and discovering. Sometimes there is no opportunity or encouragement to feel pain as anything other than death.

But much and even most of the time, if we are able to open to it, pain does what it can do. It moves us. It gets us going, reaching deep into ourselves and far out to others, until we find pathways of thinking, feeling, and acting that connect us with sources of comfort and joy. We write, we share, we run, we squeeze, we release, we create. We teach, we cry out, we call for change.

As we do, healing happens. It happens through the bodily movements we are making. It happens through the relationships that those bodily movements are creating. And as it does, we know. We know that joy is more abundant than sorrow. That love is stronger than hate. That movement is forever. That life is a dance.

What we create can never represent our pain. It can never make sense of it. Never make it OK. Never justify it in any way. No. What we create simply affirms the ongoing movement of life in us wanting more—the ongoing movement of life that our ability to feel pain represents.

There is very little in life over which we have control. As vigilant and careful as we are, we cannot stop all accidents from happening or illnesses from erupting. We cannot even manage our emotions or control our responses. But we can cultivate our ability to be moved by the movement of life as it is expressing itself through us, for us, and for a better world. And pleasure of participating in the ongoing emergence of the world can be greater than any pain we experience—inspiring, prolific, and contagious.

So we keep going, hearts bursting, tears flowing, bringing to life the world in which we want to live.

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