Life is Pain: So Then What?

“Life is pain. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”–William Goldman

As a child, I was captivated by the rapid word-play, stunning sword fights, and memorable characters in the movie adaptation of William Goldman’s novel “The Princess Bride.” As an adult, I read the novel, and I was struck by how much Goldman focuses on the existence of pain, and the inherent unfairness present in life. The seed of this post has been floating around in my head for a long time, but it crystallized this week, aided by this post from Jonathan Fields, and the events in Joplin, MO.

I live in Missouri–just two hours north of the small city of Joplin. This week, the residents of Joplin were the victims of the most devastating tornado to strike in the US in over fifty years. There have been at least 136 lives lost, probably more. Thousands of people who survived the storm did so with only the clothes on their backs–their homes and their belongings are scattered as far as seventy miles away. For those of us near Joplin, this week has been a stark reminder of how fragile life is. And for those of us with any functioning empathy, this week has been filled with heartbreak by proxy–reminders of how vulnerable we all are to pain and loss.

Whenever we face an intensely painful situation–whether it’s a natural disaster or a broken relationship–we have a tendency to try to avoid the pain. This can be especially true when we face new possibilities or new situations. It is not unusual for me to sit with folks who have accepted many restrictions on their lives in an effort to avoid pain. I think all of us have been in this position. We stay in relationships that aren’t life-giving because we fear the pain of freeing ourselves for better things. We avoid getting into relationships because we fear the pain of relationships failing. We dodge the dentist because we might experience pain while in the office. Whether it’s physical pain or emotional pain, we convince ourselves that if we follow the rules (whatever those rules may be) well enough, we might just be able to avoid the pain.

Here’s the problem. When we allow ourselves to get tied up into rigid rules and roles in our attempts to avoid pain, we fall into a trap. There are two levels to this trap.

On the first level, there is often a fair amount of pain involved in our pain-avoidance strategies. If we are avoiding relationships to avoid the pain of hurt or betrayal, we are coping with the pain of loneliness. If we stay in an unhealthy relationship to avoid the pain of a break-up, we are coping with the pain of feeling unheard or not loved enough.

On the second level, (which grows from the first level), we are ignoring the reality that pain is inevitable. Whether we are dealing with the small pains of miscommunication in an important relationship, or the devastating pain of a loved one’s death, pain is a part of our experience of life. Our attempts to protect ourselves from pain generally lead to isolation. Attempts to avoid pain can also deprive us of the very experiences that make life worth living: connection, friendship, & love.

So, when I think about William Goldman’s quote, I realize that there are some deeper meanings here. When we allow ourselves to accept the fact that pain is a part of life, we can stop tying ourselves into knots to try to avoid the pain. We can use our energy for more productive activities. When we allow ourselves to accept the fact that pain is a part of life, we can more fully embrace those good and life-giving experiences that counterbalance the pain. We can truly show up in our relationships, instead of holding part of ourselves in reserve. When we allow ourselves to accept the fact that pain is a part of life, we become more resistant & more resilient. We are not willing to blindly follow anyone who promises to protect us from pain. When we allow ourselves to accept the fact that pain is a part of life, we can exercise our compassion to support others through their own moments of pain. The counterbalance to the horror of the Joplin tornado is the incredible outpouring of support and caring that is continuing right this moment.

So how about you? Was there a moment that you realized you were trying to avoid the pain–but losing a lot of the good stuff in the process?