I hate pain and I’ll do anything to avoid it.
Moby was a little mutt puppy that showed up on our front porch when he was six weeks old. He was the cutest thing I’d ever seen, but even his unimaginably soft fur didn’t turn me into a dog person. As an adult, I’d never wanted a dog. It wasn’t the amount of work they’d require or what to do with a pet when we left town—it was the risk involved. I didn’t want to have a pet because animals die and I didn’t want to be sad one day when the unavoidable became reality.
One of the worst but truest things I’ve learned in my time on earth is that pain is.
Pain exists and it doesn’t know there are people it’s not allowed to affect. It doesn’t regard demographics or financial brackets. Pain slides through the cracks of even the most well-constructed fortresses we can build.
But pain’s reality doesn’t make me hate it any less. I want to shut my eyes, plug my ears and emotionally disconnect whenever possible.
At Starbucks this morning, my friend and I had a conversation about pain. What do you do with it? How do you fight it? What’s the best solution? Grow callouses so you don’t feel it? Escape it with self-destructive habits? Wallow in hopelessness and defeat? Or try desperately to fix what might inevitably be unfixable?
I casually mentioned to my Starbucks friend how I’m afraid to watch the movie “Blackfish” because of my deep emotional connection to orcas. I’m afraid I’ll feel too sad, too angry and cry too much. My friend responded that she won’t watch it, either. And she won’t watch “Schindler’s List.” And she won’t watch anything that actually happened or reflects a difficult truism or stabs a happy ending right in the chest.
I feel the same way. I’d rather run away from pain than look it in the face. I’d rather not watch “Saving Private Ryan” or read the newspaper or listen to NPR when the stories don’t turn out too well.
Ironically, we live in a culture full to the brim with pain, yet we’ve spent our life’s resources trying to avoid it. I know I have. I’ll do anything to protect myself from an inevitable onslaught of difficulty.
We’re afraid. We’re afraid of what pain looks like. We’re afraid of how much it can hurt and how much it can cost us to lose what we love or what we think we need. We’re afraid of a reality that includes challenges and failure. But, pain will always find us, even if it corners us where we least expect it.
The question is not whether or not we’ll experience pain but what to do when it comes. We all have shelter we take, places to which we run, ways we escape, or walls we hide behind.
The creek in Boulder, Colorado runs through the whole town. It runs alongside parks and buildings and under bridges and through a college campus. And under the bridges, there are signs that read, “In case of flood, do not take shelter here.”
You can’t always escape the rain.
I’m afraid I’ve developed a habit of taking shelter from pain in the silliest of places. I want to hide or run or wait for things to change.
I disconnect from others. I move into denial. I turn toward unhealthy behaviors.
But it will rain. It will flood. Where will we go?
My friend argues that we have to fix it—stop the rain, close the skies, make some slight atmospheric changes.
But what if, even for a moment, we stop avoiding pain? What if we learn to sit in it and actually feel the frightening raw emotion? What if we stayed for a second and faced what we’re most afraid of?
This doesn’t mean we wallow in hopelessness—but maybe it means we stop our attempts to outrun our own emotional response.
I’m not sure I can make real life changes or significant forward movement unless I’m willing to sit in my pain. I’m not sure I can fully engage this world unless I’m ok watching an upsetting documentary or reading a heart-wrenching article. I’m learning that running from pain means running from maturity because I’m running from the chance to love, to connect, and to contribute.
It may, in fact, be irresponsible not to face our emotional responses.
How can we make changes if we never have a visceral response to anything? Can we really say we’re alive if nothing cuts us or wounds us or makes us cry?
Real change in ourselves and this world comes from a willingness to face pain. Surface, flimsy changes may come through attempts to avoid pain, but walls are destroyed by hands that have been wounded.
I’m convinced we’ll learn transformation as people who first sit in pain. Maybe we should stop shutting our eyes to loss and betrayal. Maybe it’s time we learn to cry—the ugly, snotty cry that pours out our insides.
And then, we can see and make changes. Then we move forward. As people who don’t take false shelter, but as people who aren’t so afraid of rain.