Accepting pain as part of life

I’ve been re-reading When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough by Harold Kushner. In chapter nine, which I read yesterday, Kushner proposed three “non-negotiable” elements of life, things we absolutely must have and do so that we can say we have lived our life and not wasted it, When he came to the second point, I thought of W and L immediately. His second point is: Accept pain as part of your life. (The other two elements are “belong to people” and “know that you have made a difference”.)

I want to write the following for W and L:

I know you’re suffering from physical and/or emotional pain. I can never fully understand your feelings, so what I write may be off the mark. Even so, think of this as someone’s attempt to offer solace.

At first glance, Kushner’s second point seems weird. Why should we accept pain as part of our life? Shouldn’t the goal of life be happiness? Shouldn’t we avoid pain as much as possible? Is Kushner trying to convert us to masochists?

Kushner explains:

To be fully and authentically human, we have to be prepared to take off the armour we usually go around wearing to keep the world from hurting us. We have to be prepared to accept pain, or else we will never dare to hope or to love. Without the readiness to feel, which must include feeling pain, we will never know the joy which Ecclesiastes identifies as one of the chief rewards of life. We have to make room in our souls for the tragic view of life. As long as we still insist on happy endings, we will still be children, upset and angry if God doesn’t respond to our cries and make everything work for us. I don’t have much good to say about suffering, but it does take away your illusions about how the world is supposed to work.

It is worth noting that in most contemporary cultures (to my knowledge, that is), succumbing to pain is not something that is encouraged. We want stories and movies with happy endings. We take pain-killer medicine the minute some part of our body begins to feel unwell. We discourage crying. We take care that we are not hurt. We want to be happy all the time.

But Kushner reminds us of two simple facts. First, the world does not exist to make us happy. Life is full of setbacks, disappointments, and tragedies, and as a result, pain. Second, without the capacity to feel pain, we will not be able to fully experience joy, which is also part of life.

Kushner does not mean that we should indulge in pain. Accept pain as part of our life, feel it, and at the same time believe that time will heal all pain. He writes:

Pain does not last forever, nor is it necessarily unbearable, and we need to be taught that. ….Broken hearts, like broken bones, hurt dreadfully but ultimately they heal, and that there is life beyond the hurting …… The terminally ill need to be reassured that we will cherish them and spend time with them and take them as seriously as we did when they were healthy. Most of all, we have to learn to trust our capabilities to endure pain. We can endure much more than we think we can; all human experience testifies to that. All we need to do is learn not to be afraid of pain. Grit your teeth, and let it hurt. Don’t deny it, don’t be overwhelmed by it. It will not last forever. One day, the pain will be gone and you will still be there.

In English, the word that is most often collocated with the word “pain” is “fight”, as if the only way to deal with pain is to fight it, because in fighting, there is winning. We need not look for pain, or indulge in it. But there is nothing wrong with accepting it and feeling it. Pain does not last forever. When it’s gone, we become a more feeling person.

I may not fully understand your feelings now. But I hope that these words will serve as some food for thought.


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