I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the avoidance of pain. It seems that I do a lot of that – serenity and contentment have become so important to me in the past few years that I am swinging to the extreme of avoiding anything unpleasant. Obviously, there’s a lot I can’t avoid – normal daily life is, unfortunately, rife with unpleasantness to some degree, after all – but I do tend to minimize as much as possible.
In one way, I think that’s a good thing. I think it’s good and healthy to minimize the drama and angst in one’s life. Stress, particularly chronic stress of the type you really can’t resolve, is so bad for us physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. So I think it’s a positive thing to eliminate the things in our lives that cause us chronic stress without a corresponding (or exceeding) level of benefit. If you’re at a job that makes you miserable, for instance, and it’s possible for you to change jobs without creating difficulty for yourself, then by all means I think you should. If you’re in a relationship that is making you extremely unhappy, and you’re able to extricate yourself without undue hardship on yourself and/or those around you, then I think it’s definitely indicated to do so. Friends who leech the life from you and do not bring sufficient offsetting joy or love into your life can probably be jettisoned. And so on.
But I think that at some point, elimination of stress can become the avoidance of pain…which sounds like a positive – who likes pain? – but, in fact, probably isn’t. Here’s why I say this:
For one thing, pain makes us grow. There are many different kinds of pain and many of them are useless and pointless – but not all of them are. A great many of the types of pain we endure are the very things that help us to mature, to grow, and to become wiser. It’s analogous, to my mind, to the pain of exercise. If you aren’t used to exercising, when you first begin there’s going to be some level of pain. You’ll struggle with the exercise, and you’re going to be sore. Those aren’t bad things – the pain you’re feeling is an indication that your muscles are toning and building and your body is improving – growing. But if, for example, you do a lunge and feel a pop in your knee and suffer extreme pain – that is not in any way good or beneficial to your body. That’s a bad thing, and you will suffer to no benefit and to great detriment. That type of pain is to be avoided at all costs.
It’s the same with emotional pain, to my mind. There are types of pain that do you no good, and should be eliminated if at all possible. But there are types of pain that help you to grow and learn and become stronger and wiser, and while I don’t advise seeking out any kind of pain, these types of pain should at least be endured.
An example is something I’m dealing with right now. My older brother has been ill for a while now, and the process has aged him enormously, to the point that when I saw a recent photo, I didn’t recognize him. He is only nine years older than I, and at one time we were extremely close. Life and the intervening years have created a great deal of distance (both literal and figurative) but I would still not be stretching the truth at all to say he is easily my favorite brother. Seeing the change in him was shocking and terribly painful for me. When I was recently back home, moving Mom back to Oklahoma, I had the opportunity to see my brother – and didn’t take it. I chickened out. It was too painful to contemplate.
That type of pain, though, is something that adds to your character and helps you to learn difficult truths and gain wisdom that does not come through easy, comfortable life. No one wants to experience it – but I can say that, having watched more than one loved one die from slow, terminal illnesses, it is definitely a process that gives you strength and so much insight into life and love and many other things. It is not an opportunity I want, but it is one I should have taken when it was there.
Of more immediate significance, I lost – well, threw away – the opportunity to see my brother, whom I love very much, and who I have not seen in several years and may not have a chance to see for several more years. No matter how difficult it might have been for me, that was unquestionably a mistake. I will regret that forever.
Which brings me to the second point. Many times, in my experience, avoidance of pain is not avoidance at all – it is merely deferral. It’s like using a credit card. You’re not getting out of paying for the purchase – you’re just putting it off. And when you do pay, it will be with interest. Pain is the same way. If you try to avoid it now, you may make today and even tomorrow easier – but at some point, the bill comes due, and it’s generally vastly inflated.
I thought I had learned that lesson after deferring my grief after my father passed away. I put that off for about ten years – and paid an enormous price when I was no longer able to defer it. I thought that had taught me to deal with things as they come rather than waiting and trying to avoid it. Clearly, it is a lesson I am still learning.
I preach – and really try to live – balance in all things. It’s amazing to me how, every day, I find new areas in which my life is out of balance, and where I really need to work on evening the scales. I need to find a way to maintain serenity and peace without putting on blinders or rose-colored glasses or sticking my head in the sand. The difficult parts of life aren’t going to go away because I try to ignore them. The key is finding ways to see them, acknowledge them and cope with them without letting them own you or break you or steal your peace and joy. I’m working on that. It’s hard, but then so is climbing a mountain – and at the end, the view is so worth it. (Yeah, I guess I did sort of steal that one from Hannah Montana. Sorry.)
Love, peace and joy to everyone – and if you must feel pain, may it be the kind that helps you to grow, and may you handle it with grace and courage and gentleness to self.