Pain, Closeness, and Joy

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One Tiny Principle to Live By

There’s a tiny principle that I try to live my life by now. One which came to me, as these things do, after a great many mistakes. Failed relationships, lost friendships, incinerated passions, missed chances, and so on. I have come to think of it, after reflection, as what humility means to me — for now, at least.

You do not have to convince me of your pain. To persuade me it is real. That your wounds ache. No matter how rich or poor you are, how old or young you are, how fortunate or wretched you are. My first job is to witness it, see it, listen to you. Not “understand” it or “explain” it or even “help” you: without blame, shame, condemnation, judgment, criticism, disappointment, indulgence, or exhortation. I will just be there, as gently as I can.

That is all. It sounds so simple, doesn’t it?

Ah, but it is the hardest thing of all, I have learned. And it is the truest thing of all, perhaps, too — what else is equality, when you think about it, but this?

Let us think about how we are taught are to relate to one another.

“I am hurting”, says one person to you.

“Look at the world! See how it hurts! There are people who have been harmed in so many more terrible ways!”, we cry. “Look at me! See how I have been hurt, more than you!!”, we remonstrate. Perhaps we have noble intentions — by putting this person’s pain “in perspective”, now it must hurt less.

But when someone says that to you, don’t you only hurt more? Why is that? Well, because it is now you are not seen, heard, or witnessed. You are not really allowed to exist at all. You are only being compared, which is to say relativized. But in an absolute sense, you have been extinguished. So now there is your original pain — and atop it, another one, of being erased, reduced, altered, disappeared.

We do not know how to hold each other well, you and I. So that we find closeness and intimacy, and through those, reveal a sense of grace, meaning, and purpose in our little lives. The troubled age that we live in now is only a reflection of that deeper mistake.

How are we to correct it?

To really sit still, be open, to witness and listen and see, non-judgmentally, non-critically, non-expectantly. Then one is giving one’s self to another. There is nothing of one left, if one succeeds. But now, and only now, one can be filled up to overflowing, too — nourished by the fullness of another. Do you see how that works? Only in this way, I have come to understand, do we really find a sense of meaning, purpose, and grace in this life. Only in this way do intimacy and closeness really come to be at all. If we do not allow someone else to be, who exists? Only we do. But now who can we be nourished by? No one at all.

I’ve written often of growing up abused. Bullied and mocked and taunted, for being a little frail disabled kid, in a society that prized competition and violence and might. Your pity is kind, but it is not what I am after. I learned quickly enough to bully right back. To aggress and transgress and hurt and harm, better than my adversaries. I learned that words hit harder than fists, and what was unsaid could cut sharper than a knife. But in this cycle, this endless ocean of harm that I was now a wave upon, what was really happening? Have you ever wondered what a cycle of violence really is?

It is just people saying, “No! My pain matters more!! More than this person’s” Smack. Crunch. The fist, the slap, the taunt, the insult. That is all they have ever said.

Now. When we enter cycles of violence, we are learning to play this little game: to shout our pain louder and louder, until we are even using fists — by harming others, usually those who are precisely those we wish to be close with, until they submit. We hope for their surrender precisely because then we can feel: our pain matters most, at least more than theirs. But what do we never gain? Well, no one’s pain is ever really soothed this way, it it? How could it be?

But what soothes pain? Ah, now we come to the heart of the issue. Pain, we think, is something that will one day go away. That we can take away one another’s pain. That we can reduce it, minimize it, shrink it, erase it. Hence, instead of witnessing, listening, just being with, we act against those we love.

We are mistaken. Everyon’s pain is ever and always just a heartbeat away. We stand on the razor’s edge of grief all our lives long. Just think of that person you loved so deeply, now gone. For me it is my grandmother. Just think of those days you spent aching, struggling, wounded. For me they are my earliest days. And soon enough, if you really allow yourself to remember, your heart will feel like it is exploding, won’t it? Mine does. Everyone’s does.

Our pain never goes anywhere at all. It is not meant to. It is something like a river ever flowing through us, towards an ocean we must walk towards, our hearts in our hands. When we open ourselves, sit still, and just be there, with others, non-judgmentally, non-critically — then something a little magical happens instead. That pain does not disappear. It is transformed.

Sometimes, into laughter. Sometimes, into grace. Sometimes, into tears. But in all these ways, it is tranformed into closeness, intimacy, relationship. Just think about it in your own life. When someone really listens to, witnesses, hears you, in this open, non-judgmental, non-critical way, then this is what happens, doesn’t it? You are lighter and freer. But, strangely, you are also forever connected to that person, too, with the bonds of knowing one another, aren’t you?

And so. I have learned, through all these mistakes I have made, the ways I have failed to love and be loved, hold and be held, only this. We do not take away one another’s pain. But if we are there, witnessing, seeing, listening, — if we kneel before every life we meet — then there is the chance for something greater still. The pain which sears every heart becomes a happiness greater than happiness. The joy of belonging, grace, and meaning.

At last, we are at home, in this strange and alien place we call the world. But do you know what the world is? It is only ever the pain that we allow to flourish into joy. And did you know? To become joy is the secret and the purpose of pain.

Just as a new father watching the a child taking its first tiny, aching breath feels his heart explode with love, with grief, with thanks.

January 2018

Pain, Closeness, and Joy was originally published in a book of nights on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.


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