The Pain That Centers Us

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This past week I finally had the chance to meet my new nephew. I was unable to visit my sister in the hospital after she gave birth because my kids and me were sick with a neverending something or another. That’s what happens when you live with a drooling toddler who picks his nose.

Finally a week later I was well enough to visit. We gathered in my sister’s living room that was newly littered with baby stuff like swings and carseats, and we all stared at my sleeping nephew, awaiting his next move. The next move, as in hunger, diaper change, or gas. Babies are so complex, and yet ridiculously simple.

My sister and brother-in-law recalled the details of the delivery. My sister described being in the throes of 17 hours of labor and remembered people talking around her, but not being a part of their conversations. She was so focused on her contractions and the pain that the rest of the room became white noise.

I knew exactly what she meant. When I gave birth to each of my three children, nothing around me mattered. I was wholly focused on getting through the excruciating pain, closing my eyes and burying my head against the side rail of the hospital bed, wanting to be left alone and disengaged with the rest of the world. It is an experience unlike any other; you think of nothing else except survival. You forget about the papers on your desk back at home. Politics don’t matter. What you are doing tomorrow doesn’t matter. I didn’t even really think about the actual baby I was about to meet. There were no thoughts about how much hair he/she would have, or what would the baby look like. In the midst of childbirth, the only thing you care about is getting the baby out and ending the pain. You are fully present in the moment. There is one task. Nothing more.

The other day I went running, and I thought about my conversation with my sister about childbirth. I realized something about pain. (Running is amazing like that. It somehow manages to rattle all of the best thoughts and ideas out of the hidden compartments of your brain.)

My important revelation: Pain brings us back to the present. It centers us around what is most important.

If you have a fever and body aches, you are forced to slow down. You have to recover, and your thoughts and actions are devoted more intentionally to this purpose. You can try to keep going, business-as-usual, but eventually you will have to take make your health a priority if you want to get better. This is when we have to cancel appointments or take the day off from work. We stay in bed, paying attention to how much liquids we consume, watching more TV than usual, fretting over our temperature, medication, and engrossed in the details about our bodies that we usually ignore.

We tend to take care of ourselves last. We push to keep working. Keep going. More to do. Rest can come later. But later is never later. Later only comes when we are forced to feel the pain that makes us slow down. Pain is like: Stop! You must take care of this RIGHT NOW. No more later.

A stuffy nose reminds us how miraculous it is to breathe.

A broken arm makes us feel grateful for functional limbs, reminding us about how much we depend on it.

It takes the pain of a marriage in jeopardy to slow down and figure out what went wrong, to make it a priority to address our problems, to give the relationship the time and space and energy it requires to thrive again, or to be able to end it in good conscience.

Sometimes it takes our child lashing out or having a serious problem for us to make time to tend to their innermost needs. It’s so easy to get lost in the hustle and bustle of our daily lives; we often neglect to notice the ups and downs of the people who we love the most.

We spend a lot of our time acting defensively with our loved ones instead of investing in the offensive strategies of relationship management. We wait until it hurts to do something.

Sometimes we wait too long for the pain to be helpful to us. If you ignore the pain, there might be irreparable damage.

In our day-to-day lives, we address the tasks on our to do list often in the order of when not doing them will hurt us the most.

When we procrastinate, we push tasks off until the last possible moment, right before something bad will happen. A due date that threatens our money, job, reputation, pride, whatever. That’s when we act. We somehow seem to naturally use pain as our motivation to take action. Pain influences our priorities.

The pain we experience from the death of a loved one is poignant, because there is nothing we can do to change anything in a relationship with the deceased. It’s over. It can’t be fixed.

After Kenneth died, I thought about the stupid things that fueled our arguments. If either of us had known our fate, I am confident that both of us would not have been so stubborn about the dumb disputes that we thought were so important.

It’s amazing how bogged down we get in the meaningless minutiae of life.

The pain of a relationship that ends doesn’t have to be from death. It can be a break-up, divorce, the end of a friendship, a family feud, squabbling between neighbors, or maybe just growing apart or moving away.

Losing someone forces us into a reflective place in which we must admit to ourselves everything that we did or didn’t do in the relationship. In that reflective space, we recognize our boundaries, or lack thereof, and we begin the process of rebuilding and strengthening them, brick-by-brick.

Pain and suffering do not exist merely to torture us. There is so much to learn from pain.

It’s not a question of how to prevent pain; we cannot escape it. The question is what to do with it.

Small pain, big pain. Temporary or permanent. The kind of pain we can put bandaids on, and the pain that rips us apart. All of it can serve a purpose if we choose to pay attention and be still long enough to absorb the lesson.

Pain centers us around what is important. It helps us recalibrate our priorities, giving us an urgency for being present. Only when we are present can we reflect, think about our purpose, and determine what our next steps will be.

When Kenneth died, I felt a need to dig deeper inside of myself to understand what I wanted out of my one precious and fleeting life. I had to re-organize my priorities. There were shitty parts of life that I had to accept and make peace with, and there were other truths that I had to let go. I had to become deliberate about what I gave space to and strategic about every person, place, and thing that I allowed into my life. As a widowed single mother, I had to readjust my expectations, organize the chaos in and around me, and make hard decisions with a confidence I was forced to find.

None of it has been easy. The only thing I know to be true is that you have to keep working through the pain, even when you want an easy way out. It’s always a work-in-progress.

Before Kenneth’s death, I had a very specific way of seeing the world. It was clear-cut to me. There was one path to take. You just had to work hard. That’s it. I couldn’t understand why others struggled when the answer was so simple. Surely these people were just not interested in living efficiently. They must have been sabotaging their own happiness.

It’s all fun and games until life knocks you on your ass, and then see who is living so efficiently!

Working hard is only half of the battle, and in many cases it’s not good enough. I would argue today that working hard is meaningless unless you also have the ability to persevere. When your path in life becomes a dead-end, you must have the skill set and mindset to find another path. Adaptability and resilience are vital for your survival and success, because without them, one-dimensional hard work won’t necessarily be enough. You have to know what to do with a life that inevitably won’t go as planned.

Our resilience is strengthened by working through pain. We become resilient because of our ability to turn our pain into something more. Resilience doesn’t grow in perfect conditions. We become resilient when we are trying to survive in the trenches.

I had no patience for “broken” people before Kenneth’s passing. I had a vanilla, middle class childhood. Same neighborhood. Same schools. Same neighbors. Two parents. The worst thing that happened to me was that time we forgot to feed the parakeet and it died (I still feel terrible about that). It was also pretty terrible that I had a brother who ate everything in the house, including all of the marshmallows in our Lucky Charms cereals. That was a big deal, because our mom was mega cheap and almost never bought Lucky Charms. To have him pick them all out as soon as she brought it home was a tragedy.

Alas, all vanilla lives must come to an end someday. Some sooner than others.

These days I can spot people who have experienced loss from a mile away. There is something about them, maybe it’s in their eyes, or perhaps in the way that they talk to me, that tells me they know.

Whereas in the past I didn’t understand “broken” people who struggled, now I find myself liking them the best. I especially like people who are open about their brokenness. People who wear the glue that binds them together–glue that represents all of the strength that it took to become whole again–as a badge of honor, instead of concealing it in shame.

I like people who aren’t afraid to hang their shame out in the open for others to nod their heads and say, “Me too.”

I like the kind of people who are honest and courageous about the horrors of life. People who don’t believe real life should be sugar-coated. People who kept going despite their struggles because the alternative wasn’t an option for them.

If I hadn’t experienced loss, I probably would have never had my eyes open big enough to notice these beautifully broken people. I would have likely judged them and discounted them as damaged.

It made me realize that there are many things I didn’t see in my life before loss. It’s like my eyesight was poor and somebody finally gave me glasses, and now I can vividly see all of the colors and the intricate details of a new world that had always existed unbeknownst to me right under my nose.

One day during service at my Buddhist temple, our reverend talked about adopting a mindset of not knowing. In other words, assuming that you could be wrong.

I immediately began thinking of reasons to prove him wrong, as one often does when presented with the threat of not knowing everything. I thought about politics. What about other people’s opinions and voting records that are hurtful to others? How could I ever pretend that they could be right and I’m wrong? No way. Certain things are cut and dry.

I had to think about it some more. Mull it over. Let it coagulate in the chaos of thoughts that churn in my head.

I think admitting that you don’t know everything is a way to acknowledge that you are human, and therefore not able to see everything.

We are not all-knowing beings. We are, by nature, deeply flawed. Therefore, it is always possible that we overlooked something or don’t have all of the necessary information.

We could be wrong.

It isn’t actually about being right or wrong, but rather more about accepting what makes us human and having empathy for all.

That’s where pain comes in, because as deeply flawed humans who easily get too comfortable in the way that we live, we need to get smacked down to the ground every once in a while. It’s what centers us best.

Pain reminds us that we are not completely in control. We don’t have all of the answers.

I can’t imagine a life without a pain, where we would have nothing to remind us about our health, nothing to keep us in check in our relationships, nothing to give us the adrenaline and motivation to fight for better in this world.

The teenagers fighting for gun control after surviving a mass shooting in Florida.

The poetry born out of anguish.

Changes in medicine and science as a consequence of disease.

New safety rules because someone got hurt.

Choosing to not give your children the same childhood that made you suffer.

It is the kind of awakening that happens after darkness. The Renaissance after the Dark Ages. Triumph that comes from the bowels of tragedy.

Today I turn 36 years old. I always feel trepidation about getting older, mostly because I have this nagging feeling that there is still so much to do in my life and I am running out of time.

When I turned 30, Kenneth tried to throw me a surprise party. It didn’t end up being a surprise. He got ticket for talking on the cell phone and driving, which I found out about, and instead of making up an excuse, he told me that he was on the phone with my mom because they were planning my surprise birthday party. He didn’t say it very nicely. There went the surprise. It was fun anyway. Turning 30 felt like I was turning a big corner.

It’s hard to believe that four years after that “surprise party,” we’d have moved out of our first house, had two more children, and he would be dead. It boggles my mind that it has been six years since that “surprise party,” and somehow I now count my birthdays not from the day that my physical life began, but by how many birthdays have passed since I lost him.

It’s my second birthday as a widow. Really, I’m just a baby.

The pain from Kenneth’s passing has given me a heightened sense of awareness about getting older. I seem to appreciate life more deeply. It could all be over tomorrow. It only takes a second for the life you know to fall apart. The only thing you can do about that is to live a life of gratitude, and to be as intentional as you can about how you spend your time and energy.

Do you ever stop to think about how miraculous it is that you even exist? There were so many reasons why you could have not existed. If you had been born in a different place, during a different time, to different people, how much would your existence be different?

So much of our existence today was determined by no merit of our own. We just have to work with what we have. For me, this is liberating.

I can’t exactly say that I hate my life today, even though my current circumstances wouldn’t have been my first choice. But the pain has shaped who I am, and I think this is the best version of myself so far. I wouldn’t want to go back to my previous self, even with a promise of no pain. I am content right now. I can’t guarantee tomorrow, but today, all is well.

This is possibly the best birthday present one can accept.

(But just in case, I did order a few things on Amazon and bought myself flowers.)

8 comments

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  1. Phyllis Bush

    Happy birthday! Yet another good post, Teresa. Right now I am struggling with a speech for a Women of Grace event where I am being honored. I have no problem giving speeches about issues, but I am having some issues writing a speech about myself. Ick! What I have written so far is slightly above sucky, but I have the rest of the week to edit.

    However, one of my last lines when I was reading your blog:

    I do not know how my story will end, but I am reasonably sure that I will not go gently into that good night.

    Take care and start working on that workshop proposal. Phyllis

    >

    Like

  2. cattalespress

    Teresa,

    Happy Birthday! This post is so poignant and beautiful and deep. I am saving it to reread and reread and reread …. Thank you so much for making your glue visible to all. It certainly serves as a great inspiration to me. Again, happy birthday, young, sweet, WISE woman!

    Like

  3. Alison Broxterman

    Happy Birthday! Love your blog and thank you for the reminders about acceptance, the gifts of pain, and to be grateful for each moment.

    Like

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