Your Pain Has A Purpose

The following is an edited excerpt from the book One Last Talk: Why Your Truth Matters and How to Speak It by Philip McKernan.

I was really fired up about my first big speaking event.

Five people showed up.

I remember getting on my high horse, thinking, What is this? I didn’t sign up for this.

But then I caught myself and thought, Who do you think you are? You’ve never even spoken before!

I was there because somebody had overheard a conversation I was having and asked me to come speak to their group.

I pulled myself together and spoke as though there were 100,000 people in the audience. I gave my all.

Afterward, a guy came up to me and said, “I’d like you to come and speak to my students.”

I immediately expected he was talking about a business school or a college.

No. He was a headmaster at a high school.

I thought, No way am I going back to high school. I hated high school.

He kept calling me, so eventually I said, “Okay, I’ll come with two conditions. One, that the students actually want to be in the room. It has to be by choice. And two, that you pay something.”

I think it was five dollars per person, and we gave it to charity. But there had to be some skin in the game.

I showed up, and there were 20 kids in the room. Out of 170 kids total in the school, 20 chose to show up.

Within the first minute and a half, I used the f-bomb. Straightaway, that changed the energy. It was on purpose. I wanted the kids to know that I wasn’t like the other adults, that I wasn’t going to lie to them or play to the niceties. I was going to be real.

A half hour in, I was sharing some of my story — I left out all the bits I didn’t want to talk about, because I wanted to look cool. I wanted credibility in front of these students, and I thought highlighting the good parts of my life was the way to get it.

One student asked, “Where did you go to college, and what did you study?”

I remember looking at the young kid and thinking of a bullshit answer to give, something like, “I wanted to be an entrepreneur, so I didn’t want to go to college.”

But the truth is that I did want to go to college. Not for the education, but to go with my buddies. I would’ve gone if I’d done well enough on my exams.

When I looked into that kid’s big brown eyes, I knew I couldn’t lie to myself or to these kids. Not anymore.

I said, “I didn’t go to college. Laugh if you want, but I’m dyslexic, and I failed pretty much every exam I ever sat for.”

They didn’t laugh.

The opposite happened.

At that moment, they stopped judging me.

There was an energy shift in the room. I could see it in their eyes. They saw me as human and weak and real. It was almost like all their skepticism left them, and they felt at ease with me and connected to me. They went from curiosity to love. Literally, there was love in their eyes.

They accepted me. For the first time, I felt accepted like never before, in any public forum.

For me, in that moment, the workshop pivoted. I let go of worrying about looking good. I stopped needing to sell them on who I was. It was possibly the best workshop I’ve ever run, even to this day.

This changed me. It helped me feel free to speak my truth without any judgment.

This was supposed to be a speech. But this changed it from a speech to a dialogue. I felt safe, so I opened it up, and asked them questions, and opened a dialogue with them.

And they, in turn, realized something: they didn’t just have to sit there and listen. They could share their truth too. Suddenly, my speech became a dialogue as the students began to open up with me about their parents and the pressures they faced.

This was a pivotal moment in my life.

This is the moment when I stopped “telling my story.” I stopped trying to look good.

Instead, I spoke my honest, painful truth.

This was the moment, despite my fears and my insecurities and my imperfections, I felt the world accepted me.

It wasn’t always like this, of course. When I was 15 years old, I told my mom I wanted to get rid of my name, Philip.

I thought that by changing my name, I could get rid of my story, and even my identity. That’s how deep the desire to escape ran inside of me. I felt like this because I was in a lot of pain. I was bullied and made fun of at school. I was judged for who I was.

I didn’t feel accepted anywhere.

I tried everything I could to fit in, but nothing worked. I put on every mask I could find and tried to be anybody but Philip McKernan.

I did that for 37 years of my life.

I’m 44 now.

What took me 37 years to realize was that the work I really needed to do was on the past — the very past I was running from.

Here is my One Last Talk that explores some of this past I was running from.

**

Philip McKernan’s One Last Talk

“37, 38, 39, 40, 41.”

I was sitting in school, in class, counting.

I would count until the pain stopped.

You might think that I was in a math class or geography class. Maybe counting all the countries in the world.

No.

I was counting the dandruff on the shoulder of the kid in front of me. I could see it so clearly because we wore dark uniforms to the high school I went to.

The reason I was counting the dandruff was that the shoulder represented the perfect line of sight. If I looked up high, the teacher would see me. If I was staring at the ground, the teacher would notice me. The shoulder allowed me to kind of look forward, so I wouldn’t catch the eyes of my teacher.

This memory came rushing back to me about three years ago, the counting of dandruff on the student in front of me.

When I remembered this, shame and embarrassment overwhelmed me. Then I got past those emotions and to a place of curiosity.

I asked myself, “Well, why was I doing that?”

As I looked back at my life, I realized I was trying to stay sane in school.

You see, for me, school was a like a prison. I felt entrapped. I felt enclosed. I felt like I was behind bars. I was expected to learn and absorb copious amounts of information.

The problem was that I was dyslexic. And of course, no one in Ireland or my school knew what that was at the time.

Because no one knew what dyslexia was, the teachers thought I was just lazy, or stupid, or a combination of both. Quite a few teachers went out of their way to remind me of those things every single day. As though I didn’t already feel inadequate in my own skin. I just couldn’t comprehend why I couldn’t do what every other kid could do so easily. But they reminded me.

I counted the dandruff to stay sane as I sat there for eight hours every single day, with this horrible feeling in my stomach and the looming threat that I would be asked to do the simplest of things — like read in front of my peers.

I remember one teacher actually looking at me one day and saying, “Why do you even come to school? Why do you even show up here? You amount to nothing in here.” Then she pointed to the window, and said, “And you’re going to amount to nothing out there.”

Now, at the time, I actually believed that statement. I think when you hear something long enough and loud enough, especially from people who are authority figures, you start to believe it at a deeper level than perhaps you can even imagine yourself. You internalize it.

Their voice becomes the voice in your head.

I hoped and wanted for my home to be a refuge — where I could be myself and be nurtured. But not for me. Instead, I had an angry sibling who wasn’t very happy in life, I believe, and took it out on me physically.

I didn’t have a refuge. Not school, not home. Everything felt like it was against me.

I felt unsafe; I felt unseen; I felt unheard. I didn’t even feel worthy of being seen or heard at all.

I remember getting my big break.

I remember coming into fourth year, I think it was. I went to a big rugby school. I wasn’t the most athletic. I wasn’t the biggest. But I was pretty fast. I remember hearing the rumor in the corridor that I had been picked to be on the junior rugby cup team.

This was huge.

I grew up in a very competitive environment at home. My two brothers were super competitive. Everything was a competition. If we got sunburned, it was about who got the most sunburned, etc. But the reality was that none of us had ever been picked for a team of any sort. This was big news.

When I walked up the corridor to see my name, and I turned, I’ll never forget the day. I walked past the teachers’ study on the left, and there was this stale smell of old books and some tobacco.

I remember that smell so clearly.

The other thing I can remember is my heart, beating so hard.

As I walked up, there was just this noise, this crowd, buzzing around at the notice board because the rugby teams had just been announced. I remember turning the corner. I remember being met by a student — I can’t remember who it was — with, “Jesus, McKernan, you’re on the team.”

I’d love to say they didn’t say it with an element of surprise, but they were as shocked as I was, quite frankly.

We weren’t picked on teams just based on pure skill. If you were academically inclined, you tended to get a bit of a nod. If you were very athletic, you tended to be given a break in academics. It just seemed that the more athletic or academic you were, the more accepted you were in school. I adhered to that. I believed in that. I wanted a part of that, I should say.

But I remember, as I approached the board, I actually kind of felt it may have been a joke. This was the only time my name was ever up in lights. It was the one time I was picked for something by my own individual effort, from my own individual skill. In other words, to some extent, I felt it was the first thing that I’d earned and had been recognized for.

As I approached the board, I saw my name.

My name was last on the list, but it was on the list, nonetheless.

“Oh my God, I’m on the junior rugby cup team. Holy shit. This is just incredible.”

I tried to act cool. I tried to not make a big deal of it, because I kind of felt like maybe somebody was going to say, “It’s only a joke.” Or, “Oh, there’s two Philip McKernans in the school. The other one got picked.”

But no, it was real. I was on the team.

I remember going home, so excited, and sharing. My news wasn’t met with great applause, though. Not that I necessarily wanted applause, but I think I wanted and desired to be recognized more in my home for what had happened. But there was not much of anything.

We went on break soon after, and I’ll never forget the day that we got back to school. Somebody said, “McKernan, you’re not on the team anymore.”

Now, you’ve got to recognize that when a team goes up, a team goes up. This is not like a provisional team. This is not a temporary team. This is the team. This is the team that’s going to represent the school in the junior cup.

Somebody said, “Your name’s not on the board.”

I was shocked and absolutely floored, but I did what I always did. I put on a brave face and kind of laughed it off.

I remember walking up to the board. I made sure that I got there when no one was around. As I came up to the board, I had a different feeling. There wasn’t the buzz of people. I don’t remember what I smelled. I think I could just feel overwhelming, paralyzing fear. I got weaker and weaker and weaker as I got to the board. It’s just all a blur.

All I remember is that my name was not on the board anymore.

That remains, to this day, the most humiliating time in my entire life: 650 people saw my name go up in lights, and 650 people knew my name was removed.

I was never told why. No one ever gave me the heads up that it was going to happen. I think I know the teacher who basically took my name off, but I never found out for sure.

It was just crushing. It brought me back to this place of, “Yeah, you’re unworthy. You’re not meant to be on things like that. You’re not good enough to be on those types of teams.”

It was very hard to deal with.

I know this sounds bad, and it was, but school wasn’t all dark.

There was one teacher who believed in me. One teacher who saw something in me that I either could not see in myself or refused to see in myself.

His name was Trevor Garrett.

He was an extraordinary guy. We used to have both Honors and Pass English. Honors is where the more advanced students would go, and the Pass classes were for the stupid kids, as some would say. And Trevor Garrett ran the Pass class.

I used to live for the days when I’d go to Trevor’s class. He treated me like a human being. It’s not like he did anything massively different to me than anyone else in his classes. But he saw something in me. He believed in me. He gave me this space. He made me feel that I was worthy. He honored my gifts and he didn’t focus on my flaws.

And, as it turns out, I did have an ability to memorize things. For example, he would read a long story, like Horatio at the Bridge. And I could recite every single word. No other student could do that. I could memorize things that even he was surprised by.

Trust me, I was shocked, and he was surprised.

But the problem was, when it came to writing it down, I couldn’t spell the words. Therefore, I was massively penalized in all the exams that I ever sat.

No matter what, Trevor continued to have this absolute belief in me. One person can be enough to keep hope alive.

A few years ago, we did our first documentary. I went to Dublin to do a showing in my home country. It’s always very weird to go back to your own country, to the city you grew up in — Dublin — and to do a showing of a film that you feel proud about.

I remember being in the IFC in Dublin — the Irish Film Center, I think it’s called — showing the film. I remember how, before I started, I did about a 15-minute bit of context, or conversation, just to set the film up.

For whatever reason, I realized one of the teachers that used to be in my school was there. I told the story about being in school, and how challenging it was, and I mentioned that one man in school believed in me, and his name was Trevor Garrett.

When you’re standing at the front of a theater, there are a lot of lights on you, so you can’t necessarily always recognize the faces in the room.

This person stood up, and all I could see was their shadow. As they walked down the steps toward the stage, and they came up, of course, lo and behold — it was Trevor Garrett!

He was looking a little bit older, like myself, but he had the same beautiful, smiley, accepting face that I always remembered as a kid.

He walked onto the stage, did not say a single word, put his arms around me, and held me. We embraced each other. He was holding me again, all these years later — this time, in a more physical sense than when I was in school. It was more of a spiritual sense at that time.

He didn’t say one word, and he held me. The two of us shed a tear.

We finished our embrace, and he walked back, sat back down, and I looked around and said, “Okay, I’m done. We’re going to just watch the movie now because I have nothing else to say. I’m a bit of a mess right now.”

It was just a beautiful, circular time in my life. He’s not the only one who had a huge impact on my life, but he was one of the very big people in my life. The big circle came back where he was in the audience. It was just a really, really proud moment for me.

Somebody asked me recently in a podcast interview, “What are you an expert in?” And I said, “Well, I don’t really consider myself an expert in anything. But, if I had to, I would imagine that I’d consider myself an expert in misalignment.”

What it feels like to be out of alignment. What it feels like to feel off in your identity, not understanding who you are. What it feels like to run from what you don’t want, as opposed to moving toward what you do want.

I do believe — to my core — that our greatest gifts lie right next to our greatest pains.

I know that is true for me. I feel like my work has been crafted and inspired by the pain that I have experienced.

The reason I struggled for 37 years to find passion and purpose in this world is because I was unwilling to address and to lean into and to explore this pain — and therefore, the gift that sat right next door to it was left dormant.

I had to recognize and embrace the dark side of my experience. The pain and suffering of when I felt unseen or unheard, before I could walk into the light even a little. So I suppose the positive side of my story is that, to some extent, that’s where the origin of One Last Talk was born.

I created One Last Talk because I know what it feels like to be unseen.

I know what it feels like to be unheard.

I know what it feels like to hold onto your truth and not share it.

I know what it feels like to feel pain.

To some extent, my journey and my pain are the very things that I want to help others through.

Of course, I can’t do that for you. But I hope maybe I can help you, in some small way, do it for yourself.

**

If I look back and ask myself, “What is the most pivotal work I’ve ever done on myself?” it was uncovering and beginning to speak my truth.

The first time I went to therapy, I went begrudgingly. I thought, Therapy is for other people. But for Philip McKernan? No fucking way.

I remember walking into the room and seeing two seats. In one of the seats was a big box of Kleenex. I thought, He must have a bad cold. So, I sat in the other.

I was that naïve.

When he came in, he said, “That’s my seat.” All at once, I realized what the tissues were actually for.

I shouted at him, “You’re not going to make me cry!”

We were about three and a half minutes in when the tears came. By the mid-point of the session, I was hoping there were more Kleenex in the cupboard.

At the end of the session, he said, “Okay, we’re done now.”

I said, “What do you mean we’re done? I’m just getting started. Get me some more Kleenex, and let’s get back at it.”

I didn’t realize how much anger, sadness, resentment, judgment, and shame I was carrying.

It was overwhelming. And quite scary, initially.

But as I moved through therapy, and as I uncovered and connected with my truth, I felt lighter and lighter. Eventually, I began to believe in myself. I thought, “You know, McKernan, you’re not a bad guy.”

To make that realization — that I wasn’t a bad guy at all — I had to acknowledge that my life was very painful at times. I had to face the reasons why I felt so bad about myself. I had to look at the shame and the judgment I felt from people.

I had to realize these emotions were in me. And once I realized this, once I named these emotions, I felt so much lighter.

I wasn’t fixed. I hadn’t done all the work I would do eventually. But just the naming alone made such a big difference.

If I wanted to understand why I wished I could change my name, I had to dive into what made me feel so ashamed of myself to begin with.

Then, once I dove into all that pain, I had to figure out how to find purpose in my pain.

This was the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life. It tore me up, and it nearly broke me.

But I did it.

And now I’m determined to help people with similar pain to find their path to the other side.

That is the point of One Last Talk.

Even if you’ve gone through very different circumstances than I have, I want to show you how to face your pain, to stop your pain from trapping you. To instead get in touch with your truth and speak it, so you can move past that pain — and potentially help others do the same.

I don’t think I’m special. I believe, at the core, we all want to give back. We all want to make a difference.

The challenge for most people is how to actually go about doing that.

It seems difficult, but it’s actually easy.

The problem is that we’re often looking outside of ourselves for a way to give back.

I believe the source of giving should emanate from within. If we truly understand and connect with our truth — emotionally and not just intellectually — it actually shows us the answers.

I believe that once a person gets to the essence of who they are and really uncovers the truth they need to face and then speak, they will inevitably want to give back by helping others through the pain they’ve experienced.

So, while this might sound very simple — that everyone wants to give back, and the best way they can give back is to connect with their pain and their truth and to speak it, and to thus help others experiencing that same pain — it took me 44 years to understand.

You’re about to read seven more One Last Talks. Each one is a real talk, given by a real person.

To keep reading, pick up One Last Talk: Why Your Truth Matters and How to Speak It by Philip McKernan.