60 Minutes did a segment on the desperate famine in South Sudan. The first image of a starving child appeared on the screen and I felt the immediate urge to look away, to change the channel, to do anything rather than face that pain and horror square on.
But, as things go, I’d recently heard someone mention that impulse to avoid looking directly at things that hurt. So this time, instead of looking away I looked directly at what was before me. And it was painful and horrifying and infuriating and heartbreaking. And I am better for having looked.
Whether the pain is personal or global we are better off when we look straight at it.
Confronting what hurts is painful, hiding from what hurts is where we enter the realm of suffering. Pain is harsh and intense and immediate. Losing a loved one is painful, losing a job is painful, losing something that we believed defined who we are is painful. There is no way around pain but, often, suffering is what happens when we won’t accept the pain as part of life and try to avoid it. Then the pain morphs into suffering. Suffering that sucks the joy out of everything else.
Sometimes pain comes with suffering. The starving people of South Sudan are experiencing both. But a lot of the time we suffer needlessly. Often we suffer because we are trying so hard to avoid pain.
Have you noticed that avoiding pain takes constant vigilance and a lot of energy? We’re constantly on guard for anything that will bring up that pain, anything that will remind us of what we so desperately want to forget. It’s like living with our head on swivel, never knowing what will trigger the pain we’re trying to avoid so we’re on high alert all the time. Also, hiding from pain takes away the one choice we have, choosing our response to what hurts so badly.
When we take the other road, when we steel ourselves and look at the heartbreak directly we feel pain. But sit with the pain for a while and it dissipates. For a while it is raw and acute and awful and then … it isn’t. Then we can feel ourselves coming back to the world feeling a tiny bit lighter. The pain may come round again but it won’t be as bad. Pain is part of the human experience. Suffering is what happens when we fight against the pain as if somehow whatever it is shouldn’t hurt.
Looking directly at our pain and being willing to just sit with it is like letting a purifying fire burn away what isn’t true in us, leaving just our pure core.
Looking right at our pain reveals a strength we may not have known we possessed. Our power is in being willing to look at what hurts. Our power is in knowing that we can survive what life throws at us, not that it will be easy but that we can do it.
While we’d be crazy to seek out pain, knowing that it is part of life and that everyone experiences it, makes it a bit easier when it comes. Looking at our own pain expands our capacity for compassion. We see ourselves in others and act with a more generous heart towards them and towards ourself. Sitting with pain and letting ourselves experience it fully is hard, but it’s not as hard as the alternative.