We Are All Damaged Goods
Psychological pain isn’t rare. It is a fact of life—one most of us feel, daily. The trick is to recognize it for what it is: an invader—one that is easily vanquished, with the right tools.
All disempowering acts — from everyday unkindness to evil atrocities — come from one place and one place alone: pain.
Why not fear? Or anger? Or any of the other emotions we typically associate with lashing out at others, whether in self-defense or pre-emptive strike?
That’s because anger is an outward manifestation of fear, while fear itself exists as the result of past pain felt.
None of us is afraid, until we learn to be — until we experience physical or psychological pain.
While physical pain can be crippling, and when chronic, can fully take over one’s emotional wellbeing, emotional pain, per se, is the most pervasive cause of suffering, and has led to countless lives ruined or lost. This is true of both the sufferer and those at whom their own pain has been aimed outward.
Aeschylus, the Ancient Greek “Father of Tragedy”, wrote, “There is no pain as great as the memory of joy in present grief.” We all long to feel joy — pain-free. When we do, we are in touch with our foundational state: love. We are deeply in touch with love from birth. It’s how we bond; it permeates every manifestation of our creativity; and it fuels everything good we put into the world.
It is also from love that we are separated — by others attempting to inflict their own pain on us, to make them feel less alone with their suffering. Because we are feeling creatures, we often internalize pain inflicted upon us, allowing it to corrupt us when we do. Feelings of inadequacy, of rejection, of being unloved, and of purposelessness — these are all the prime sources of anguish. The more distance we perceive there to be between us and their opposites — wholeness, acceptance, love and purpose-driven — the more acutely we will feel pain.
The Ancient Greeks didn’t have to wait long after Aeschylus for another tragedian to give voice to pain’s antidote. His somewhat younger contemporary, Sophocles, wrote, “One word frees us all the weight of pain in life. That word is love.”
What he was pointing to was the impossibility to feel both pain and love at the same time. In the throes of pain, love is inaccessible to us, as much as when love permeates us, it leaves no room for pain, or for anything else. It is all-encompassing.
That’s not to say that pain isn’t a phenomenal teacher. Love without pain isn’t as sweet, however comforting it may be. Pain felt, deeply, makes us that much more grateful for every day or moment that we are free of it.
Author Glennon Doyle understood this relationship. She said, “If no pain, then no love. If no darkness, no light. If no risk, then no reward.”
Pain is a teacher that holds many lessons for us. It is sometimes a brutal task master. It can teach us the price of chances taken, unsuccessfully. It can reveal the weight of our own psyches. It can show us what pain looks like when someone else who feels it aims it in our direction, destructively. And it can unveil where and how we hurt, so that with enough work, we can heal ourselves, and return to a loving state.
Still, the human world is no more than the outcome of our individual yet inextricably enmeshed and inter-dependent actions; and if the primary fuel for empowering actions is love, then pain is hypoxic — it starves love of oxygen.
Pride, deceit, control, envy, despair, narcissism, rejection, rage, abuse, murder and of course anger are all manifestations of pain. When we experience any of these — whether the cause or the victim — they are evidence of an attempt on the part of those who feel it to release pain, however destructively.
We have to listen to our pain. If we wish to deal with it positively — to defang it — we need to recognize when it’s there, and to notice what it does to our bodies and our thoughts. How it poisons both. If we can see it, we can attempt to revisit and uncover what it was that triggered our reaction. Therein lies the lesson that can lead us to insight and allow us to address our pain directly.
Pain, once uncovered, is less frightful than pain that lurks in the shadows, causing havoc while remaining invisible, and thus untreatable.
Pain uncovered is something we can hold at a distance, and thereby re-establish our relationship with it. Understanding that pain is a thing unto itself — that it is not us, but rather is hosted by us — can lead us back to the time and place when it first visited and corrupted us. With perspective, we stand the chance of re-interpreting — re-conceiving — it into something empowering: pain, uncovered, made familiar, and thus defanged — transformed.
Pain can reveal parts of ourselves that aren’t whole, like a leaky pipe or a squeaky wheel. Without finding the source, we are powerless to act on the problem. Even once we do, the tools we bring to the job have to be adequate in order to repair it.
In other words, reducing pain is a multi-step process that begins with deep listening, to promote self-awareness. Once we are aware of what causes us pain — toxic experiences, self-narratives or conclusions — we can rebuild those narratives with self-compassion. We are all, shockingly, hard on ourselves. We are relentless in our judgment — not just of others, but of the self. These little attacks lead to deepened pain, which cannot help but be aimed inward or outward, destructively. Self-compassion leads, when adequately consistent, to self-acceptance. It’s only from acceptance of self — both good and bad — that a replacement narrative — one that is more empowering — can be cultivated.
While none of this is easy, it is all eminently doable. Just ask Marcus Aurelius, Viktor Frankl, Maxwell Maltz, Theodore Rubin, Carol Dweck, Eckhart Tolle and Mo Gaudet. Each of these people has written extensively about our relationship to self, our perceptions, and our internal narratives, as keys to overcoming our own pain.
Anyone interested in the subject would do well to familiarize themselves with all of their writings.
Those of us with adequate internal resources — self-acceptance, self-compassion and a positive self-narrative — can counter felt pain with love; because just as the reverse is true, love is also hypoxic toward pain. My own daughter, when I’m in a snit, knows this intuitively. When I’m in a “bah humbug” mood, darkness clouding my psyche, she often grabs my face, smiling like a Cheshire cat, kisses me on my forehead repeatedly, and lightly warns me, “If you don’t stop this right now, I’m going to have to squeeze your face some more.”
It never fails to uproot my pain, and I return instantly to love.
You cannot feel both simultaneously.
It’s not always easy for us to meet other’s pain with love — to be attacked, absorb it, and return kindness. Pain’s goal is to seed more pain — to feed itself, and to expand it to other human hosts.
As Eckhart Tolle says, pain can only feed on pain. It needs like energy to grow, and it is voracious. Pain desperately wants to grow — to take us over, completely. Regardless, in the face of love, pain disintegrates. In The Power of Now, Tolle espouses an enlightened methodology for learning not to identify oneself with the pain, but to look upon it as a stranger, thus starving it. Many meditation practices operate on a similar principle of decoupling thoughts or emotions from the self — of not confusing our being for our feelings.
In any event, once we are able to adequately counter pain with love, we can effectively forestall or even vanquish it, at least long enough for something more positive to take root, and grow. If we were all to treat pain with love, much of human suffering would effectively disappear. Our societies would be kinder; we would aim our energies toward productive acts that built community, and bonding; and we would leave little to no room for pain to grow and corrupt our collective health.
My mother is one of the most kind-hearted people I’ve ever met. And yet. She once read something I wrote about everyone deserving love and kindness, and she immediately challenged me: “What about Trump? Are you saying I need to have love in my heart for that demon?” When I told her he, perhaps more than any contemporary leader, needed love because everything he does screams deep-seated pain — of someone broken inside — she found the limit of her kindness. “That’s beyond me. It’s too much.” She was unable to convert the emotional pain she felt at his hand — for all the lives he’s ruined, and all the damage he’s done to our collective emotional health — into love.
And she’s not even American.
If anyone is crying out for help, it’s Donald Trump. But this story isn’t about him. Not today.
It’s about what we all share—our pain; that garden-variety, all-too-common, to-be-human-is-to-suffer pain that the Buddhists spend a lifetime attempting to convert, and overcome.
My New Year’s wish for everyone reading this is a year of pain, unearthed; insights, gained; narratives, rewritten; and love, cultivated.
We should all be so lucky.