On Pain

“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but – I hope – into a better shape.” – Charles Dickens

As of late, my journey of pain and healing surrounding Kaia’s birth has been challenged by others. “Why are you STILL in so much pain 9 months after her birth? Shouldn’t you be over it?”

I’m not sure why I am so shocked at this sentiment, seeing as through our society views emotional pain as shameful or a weakness that must be quickly conquered. And it seems as though the emotional pain from a birth experience is one in which our culture has the shortest amount of patience for. To utter this phrase to someone who has lost a loved one, been victimized through violence or rape, or has simply has fallen on tough times would be seen as rude and unsympathetic. But to say “just over it” to a Mother, violated during a fragile and vulnerable time in her life…to say it to a Mother who, while being violated, could only think of the safety and well-being of her tiny child…to say it to a woman who was asked to quickly concede with a decision that would impact her future births, her health, and potentially her life…to say it…seems unforgivable.

To say “get over” or “you shouldn’t still be in so much pain” is similar to reducing a major life experience to the bad luck on a lottery scratcher ticket. It is to assume no soul searching has occurred, no surrendering realized, and that no gratitude has surfaced. Simply, it is to assume no process has taken place. Just as one doesn’t “get over” a mountain by simply walking, the challenge of pain is that it indeed becomes a journey: complete with rocky paths, stumbling, moments of rest and rehydration, stops to assure direction, strength, agility. And in the end, a feeling of achievement, renewed appreciation, and a priceless new view of the world. Like the mountain climb, the process of pain isn’t easy. But, go through it time and time again with intention and you will become better at it, notice more, learn, and reveal and understanding that the process is what made it so worthwhile.

It’s why we celebrate icons such as Lance Armstrong and Erik Weihenmeyer (first blind man to climb Mt. Everest). We recognize them not simply because of their feats, but because of the seemingly insurmountable adversity they overcame (i.e. the process) in order to achieve them. We can relate to them. It wouldn’t be very engaging to her Lance say “Well, I won the Tour de France seven times. And I beat cancer”. We want to know how he did this, what he went through, where he found his strength…we want to know that in a small way, we can be just like him. So, why do we silence women who have experienced traumatic births? Why don’t we beg to hear their stories, learn from them, seek to relate to them? Why does it bother us so much to sit with their pain? Why do we ask them to stuff their pain deep into their souls, as quickly as possible, only to know it seeps out their entire lives? Why do we ask another being to feel very alone?

On a physical level, we understand that pain is necessary. Without it, we would not survive. It is our body’s reaction to a problem which requires immediate attention. So, too, is emotional pain a necessity for our body and hearts and mind. Glossing over it, not giving it the attention it deserves is like trying to cover a gaping wound with a flimsy band aid.

We must learn to honor pain for the lessons it reveals. When we choose to be open to pain, we become more connected to ourselves and to those around us. We find we are resilient and that we are capable of even greater love than we thought possible. Pain opens us up. Let me clarify that pain and suffering, while related, are different and I do not propose that our world must suffer. However, I have often used the terms interchangeably since they are related. Sylvia Boorstein explains that “…Suffering is what happens when we struggle with whatever our life experience is rather than accepting and opening to our experience with wise and compassionate response. From this point of view, there’s a big difference between pain and suffering. Pain is inevitable”.

Talk to people who lived years, lifetimes, without honoring their pain. They will tell you how it almost destroyed them, how they felt so alone, and how they never realized their true inner strength until one day, the pain exploded within and they were forced to either drown in it or paddle hard to stay afloat. Eventually, if they paddled, they found stable ground.

My wish list is simple and three pronged:
1. Recognize and accept that pain is a normal, healthy, and necessary life process that provides insights (i.e. Pain doesn’t always mean one is depressed, downtrodden, faithless, or ungrateful)
2. Allow others (and one’s self) their own path, journey, and timeline to healing
3. Talk about it!

Philosophers and scholars of all backgrounds and faiths have discussed pain and suffering and many have accepted its importance in our quest for love, spirituality, acceptance, and healing:

  • “Whatever you do, don’t shut off your pain; accept your pain and remain vulnerable. However desperate you become, accept your pain as it is, because it is in fact trying to hand you a priceless gift: the chance of discovering, through spiritual practice, what lies behind sorrow. Grief, Rumi wrote, can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life’s search for love and wisdom. ” – Sogyal Rimpoche, renowned Tibetan teacher
  • “I suggest to you that it is because God loves us that he makes us the gift of suffering. To put it another way, pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world. You see, we are like blocks of stone out of which the Sculptor carves the forms of men. The blows of his chisel, which hurt us so much are what make us…perfect.” – C.S. Lewis, Christian author
  • “Everything dear to us causes pain.” – Buddha
  • “Grief knits two hearts in closer bonds than happiness ever can; and common sufferings are far stronger links than common joys.” — Alphonse de Lamartine, poet
  • “The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle.” — Simone Weil, moral and political philosopher
  • “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” – Helen Keller
  • “Deep unspeakable suffering may well be called a baptism, a regeneration, the initiation into a new state.” – George Eliot (a.k.a. Mary Ann Evans), poet
  • “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being the more joy you can contain. Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?” –Kahlil Gibran, author and poet

I hope for my Kaia that she will understand that honoring the pain I experienced along with her birth was because I loved her too much to shrug it off. Through Kaia, through her birth, through my pain, I have been able to see the world even in the moon’s dark light! What a wonderful, wonderful world.

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2 thoughts on “On Pain

  1. Amen, Sister!
    Thank you for the beautiful quotes, all poetic and wise.
    And thank you for tackling grief, and how it helps to have others hold the space for our experience.
    I do see the line of living through grief and becoming a victim so very, very fine. I appreciate you drawing this distinction through your words – not intentionally, but in how you look at and hold your own grief in the midst of gratitude and hope. That, my dear, seems to be the difference. Hope.
    Brooke

  2. This is one of the most poignant pieces I have read on this topic. I am so interested in the topic of pain in and around childbirth,around motherhood (hell, in life in general). The lessons we learn just by *feeling*…allowing ourselves to feel at the inner most seed of our hearts, especially letting pain dwell in us, learning from it, until it is no longer a good houseguest and it’s not serving us. Then let it go. But inthat jounrey, as you explain, is where we truly live life.

    I am so blessed to know you! I just keep thinking about what a larger, stronger, lighter, lovlier person you are because you are willing to go to that darker place and live with it for a while. This is how true evolution occurs.

    And I don’t care if you shop at Wal-Mart…I love you anyway!

    MaryBeth

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