The Wisdom of Pain

“…if I say again that the greatest human good is daily to converse about virtue [value/meaning], and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living – that you are still less likely to believe.”
—Socrates in Plato’s Apology

Others have written on this essay’s topic, likely better than I. And since my background is largely academic, I feel a pressing urge to research what they’ve said, so I don’t repeat things or make errors they’ve corrected for. However, this essay is as much for me as it is for you. That is, while I cannot help but do too much thinking “in my head,” my better thinking occurs with my hands. Thus, writing this is a thinking things through for myself, and while that can certainly be aided by the work of others, it’s often best to give myself room to think. But moreover, anything I write will be informed not only by my experiences, but by the work of others that I have long been reading. And lastly, if I do repeat what others have already said, I hope it is in such a way that it might reach an audience that the others haven’t or couldn’t so easily reach, for whatever reason.

This past week my wife and I have visited the hospital a number of times. Her grandmother is there and, having worsened instead of having gotten better, the family has had to confront her impending death. Among other things, this has meant having to decide when to stop fluids and begin hospice care. Since her grandmother is unconscious, we go there to support her mother and family. Sadness upon sadness, confronting the reality that she will never speak to any of us again. Sadness upon sadness, having to admit that there is no recovery and now she must be made comfortable until the end.

While I grieve with my wife’s family, my family, I also feel strangely at home in the context of death and the extreme solemnity its presence affords. Since my paternal grandmother died when I was three, I’ve had issues with death. “Issues” means that the thought of my or a loved one’s death has terrified me for 37 years. Much of my reading, thought, and writing has been dedicated to issues surrounding death and suffering. However, though my maternal grandfather died in 2002, I wasn’t deeply touched by the death of someone close until the suicide of my ex-wife, Jennie, in 2010. Though she was my “ex,” we never stopped being close, close friends. I’m still working out the meaning and consequences of her death, but one thing I know is that it has been a terrible gift. I would give anything for her to be alive, but failing that, I can recognize the gift that she has given in taking her life.

I am likely too serious. I still well remember a classmate my senior year of high school writing in my yearbook that I should smoke a doobie and relax. But while there is such a thing as being too serious, I usually feel that everyone is walking around in a dirty haze of bullshit. That is the bullshit of so much of Western culture, particularly popular culture. It is a haze of investing time, thought, and desire into things of no real value, at best, and at worst, things that create short term pleasure for one at the expense of the long term livelihood of many others, including the environment and all its interconnected systems. As a philosophy professor, I spend a good deal of my thinking in my head (not enough with my hands) critiquing modern culture and trying to figure out how best to live, how best to help others. And so, I speculated aloud to my wife that I felt at home in the solemnity of her grandmother’s impending death, in part, because it forces everyone to focus on what is really important. This is not a criticism of my wife’s family, but rather a criticism of the culture we all live in, as fish live in water. We don’t usually notice it for one, but worse, our culture is expert at providing means of temporary self-medication against the realities of old age, sickness, and death.

And, thus, as much as we’d like things to be different, as painful as it is, in facing the loss of a loved one, we are granted an opportunity for awakening to realities that we ordinarily do our unconscious best—because that is what our culture has trained us to do—to elude. I imagine, too, that because we are then confronted not only with the loss of one we cannot imagine losing, but also realities that we ordinarily have “safely” sequestered away, the experience is all-too-much, and we rush to deaden it through various means. Some use alcohol or other drugs; some use the idea that we’ll all be united together in heaven, somehow just as we were on earth, only better and forever; others, Zen Buddhists, say that there is no death, no persisting, independently existing self that can die, and, thus, death is not the horror that we think it is.

The US consumes a ridiculous majority of the world’s painkillers. We are desperate to escape the pain that confronts us. As someone who both experiences chronic pain (some kind of arthritis in my hands and feet—my rheumatologist can only diagnose “joint pain not otherwise specified), and who has lived with someone experiencing chronic pain, I do not condemn the use of painkillers to improve quality of life. However, the wisdom of pain is possible, largely, only when we cannot ameliorate or cover up the pain. This is in part, as the above is meant to illustrate, because in not covering up certain kinds of pain we are forced to deal with the vital questions of the meaning of life and death, and what has real value: my obsession with work (job) and paycheck, or my relationships, etc.? Perhaps those opportunities for wisdom are tied most closely to the pain of death. But the pain of chronic pain, whether physical or emotional (and they’re not so easily divided) is a more general wisdom. If we are not made bitter by it, then we can be made, among other things, more humble by it.

One of my favorite passages from the 13th century Japanese Zen Master Dōgen is:

Long ago a monk asked a master, “When hundreds, thousands, or myriads of objects come all at once, what should be done?
The master replied, “Don’t try to control them.”
…realize that [this] is the truth. Even if you try to control what comes, it cannot be controlled.
—Dōgen, “Only a Buddha and a Buddha.” In Treasury of the True Dharma Eye. Ed. Kazuaki Tanahashi

The first several years of chronic pain, I spent bashing my head against it, trying to figure out some way to make it stop so that I could be on my feet in the classroom, keep hiking the mountains, and exploring new cities when traveling, etc. But it would not go away, causing emotional pain layered upon the physical. One result was that I was propelled deeper into my Buddhist practice and the wisdom made possible by it. But even then, I was still thinking, “If I become a better Buddhist, then the pain won’t be so bad.” So, once again, it was an attempt to control things. And, so, after nearly five years of chronic pain I have begun to let go more and more—let go of trying to control the pain. And this points to the broader reality of how little control we really have over our lives. It points us to the truth that as the sun appears to revolve around the earth, though it does not, neither does the world revolve around us, though we cannot help but feel we are at the center. The world’s “wishes” are not my wishes. Chronic or long lived pain provide a kind of impervious wall for our wills to bash against until we realize that it is only due to our will’s bashing itself against the pain that we suffer so.

When we accept what is and let go of trying to control the world, trying to make it in our own image, we needn’t, and shouldn’t, endorse a kind of quietism or acquiescence in the face of our or another’s pain. In this context especially it is helpful to remember the different senses of acceptance, as Donald Rothberg so well articulates:

…if we use a term like acceptance to point to an aspect of equanimity, it seems important to distinguish two connotations of acceptance. On the one hand, acceptance implies recognition: “I accept [that is, I don’t deny] that we have an organizational problem.” On the other hand, acceptance can suggest a resignation to the fact or even moral approval: “I accept that there is racism; this is the way that it is and has to be.” Acceptance in the former sense can lead directly to an intention to make changes, whereas the latter connotation of acceptance may block action or rationalize inaction.
—From The Engaged Spirtiual Life: A Buddhist Approach to Transforming Ourselves and the World, p180.

The blocking of action and the rationalization of inaction are real dangers when we try to practice letting go of control. As Gary Snyder (and others, I’m sure) has pointed out:

Institutional Buddhism has been conspicuously ready to accept or ignore the inequalities and tyrannies of whatever political system it found itself under. This can be death to Buddhism, because it is death to any meaningful function of compassion. Wisdom without compassion feels no pain.
—From “Buddhism and the Coming Revolution” in Earth House Hold, p90.

Again, learning to relinquish control, learning to relinquish our place at the center of the world, does not mean acquiescing to tyranny or worse. A similar issue comes up in Christianity and the idea that when something bad happens, it is God’s will, and thus must be accepted. And in that context, we find a wonderful response in the Serenity Prayer (whose origins go way back and whose heart can be found in other traditions). A version of it is:

God grant me the serenity to accept
what cannot be changed
the courage to change what can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

And it is indeed wisdom, hard won only through experience and reflection, that we can come to know the difference. For there is no formula for knowing when and how to let go—at least not that I know of.

In Buddhism, wisdom and compassion are explicitly said to go hand in hand. Compassion, like wisdom, involves seeing that there is no true separation between ourselves and others. This non-separation can be difficult to feel, to experience, as more than an abstract idea—it is too easily an ideal to shoot for, but one that remains remote from experience. One way to begin to bridge the apparent gap is through empathy. Throughout my and Jennie’s relationship, I struggled to be fully compassionate toward her. I had not experienced or known others personally who lived with the physical and mental illness that she did. Because of a neuromuscular disorder, she often experienced, at different times or in succession, seizure like symptoms, full body paralysis, and isolated spasming of hands, feet, and limbs. I did what I could to help her and comfort her, but, much to my deep regret, I was often enough impatient, seeing her illness as interfering with our lives and activities. It wasn’t until after we’d divorced and were still living in the same town that I began to truly be able to empathize with her. I had been dealing with gastritis and costochondritis for a few months. I was given a medication for the pain, but one that had an SSRI in it. One day I took too much by accident and I ended up with a mild serotonin “overdose” that manifested in muscles all over my body, but particularly my legs, twitching every 10 to 30 seconds. This ended up lasting for about four months. I was frightened and miserable, worried that I might have done permanent damage to my body or that it was the beginning of something worse like ALS. And it was only then, after we’d separated, that I was able to truly empathize with Jennie, though, of course, what I went through was still nothing in comparison to her suffering.

It is all-too-easy when we are in a position of privilege—and being pain free in a way that others are not is a position of privilege—to make judgments about the lives and experiences of others that are so radically different from our own. And those judgments are so often lacking in compassion. Unfortunately, it is often not until we know for ourselves some part of their pain, their suffering, that we can respond with compassion, and wisdom.

In looking for wisdom, we need not go out of our way to find pain in this human world. It will find us one way or another. However, we would do well to allow ourselves to be with pain, ourselves and others’—instead of unthinkingly and desperately trying to get rid of it as soon as possible—as frightening as it can be, for it is only in the face of pain that we can have the opportunity to live our way into a certain kind of wisdom. A wisdom that allows us to be more generous and compassionate, and a wisdom that allows us to live well in the face of a world not only filled with pain, but beauty and good as well.

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