Your Pain Is Real – Despite What You May Have Heard
Photo: Agony And Ecstasy Painting by Paul Lovering
Knock on wood, I don’t have testicular cancer. I’ve also never been raped. My Uncle Dave never touched me when I was a kid, nor is my body attacking itself in ways that cannot be explained by medical science.
All kinds of horrendous and atrocious shit that happens to other people, fortunately has not happened to me. I’m grateful for this. I say so every morning when I wake up and write a gratitude list and again every night when I lay my head down to sleep. Yes, I make gratitude lists.
It does not, however, mean my life is without challenge. Nor does it mean whatever my current challenge may be is not formidable in any shape, manner, or form simply because other people have experienced or are experiencing worse. Pain is not a contest.
There is no universal scale upon which I should measure my personal pain, allowing me to consciously decide how much hurt I’m allowed to experience. The same applies to you.
Your Pain Is Yours Alone
Your 100% is your 100% whether the impetus is the death of your favorite goldfish or you find yourself chained to a bed in some sick fuck’s basement in Cleveland.
Your 100% is your 100% and comparing it to what other people are experiencing devalues your own feelings. You’re allowed to crawl to the bathroom floor and bawl your eyes out under any circumstances you feel fit to do so. You may know everyone, by name, who’s gone through worse. You may know precisely what’s happening in the Congo right now, and how many children have cancer. You’re allowed to and should feel for all of them, truly I do too – but knowing they’re out there doesn’t make what you’re going through any less real, or painful at this moment.
What they are living through is their 100%. If their pain was my pain, it would be my new 100% – but this is my pain.
Your Friends Are Well Meaning – Ignore Them
When my life fell apart, I got a lot of advice. All was well-meaning, much of it was also irrelevant. No, you don’t need to go to a burn unit to put your divorce into perspective. No, you don’t need to talk to veterans about “real loss” after your grandparent passes. Your pain is yours to experience and no one will understand it as you do. Nor will anyone relate to it in the ways that you do – and that’s absolutely fine.
Here’s the rub though – no one gets to react to your life but you either.
One of my favorite “pre-life falling apart” quotations was, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react that matters,” by Epictitus. I used to look down on people in challenge and recite that from my problem-free high horse. I should have said it while sipping brandy, sitting a thick leather chair in a douchy attorney’s office, and then whimsically tossed pennies at them just to round out the experience.
Then “what happens to you” happened to me – and the game changed. Suddenly “how you react” wasn’t really applicable because my situation was unique. It was different. It was special. It had to be, it was happening to me. No one in the history of humanity had to endure what I was going to endure. I mean come on, we had a dog together. A Mexican dog at that. Who else has to have shared custody of their Mexican dog?
Why couldn’t everyone understand there was an asterisk missing from the quotation?.
“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react that matters.*” – Epictitus
(*Unless you are Traver Boehm, then this quotation is complete and utter non-applicable, bullshit – because he’s special.)
That’s how it should have read. How could Epictitus been so naive as to exclude me? What a prick.
Often What You Don’t Want Is Exactly What You Need
None of us are exempt from life’s rules though are we?
The worse the experience, the more unique it is, the more it feels like god has carved out a particularly personalized brand of hell just for you to enjoy, then the more applicable the quotation gets. That’s when there’s real juice in what you’re going through. If it’s the worst thing you can possibly imagine, then the opportunity to react with grace goes through the roof.
If the plate of shit you just got handed is your favorite flavor, then the decisions you have to make on how to eat it with a smile won’t grow you. They won’t change you. They won’t leave you a stronger, larger, wiser soul when your napkin is back in your lap and the rest of your life begins.
Your divorce is going to teach you how strong you are on your own – if you’re vulnerable enough to let it. Getting fired is going to prove to you your true value in the marketplace – if you’ll embrace just how gifted and talented you really are. The death of your loved one will heartbreakingly show you the fragility of life and the blessing that is the time you still have – if you wipe your eyes, steady your heart, and courageously step back out into society.
Honor Pain That Is Your Own
There is a world of potential devastation waiting for us all. And while the challenge you’re experiencing may not make the front page of CNN, it’s still your front page. Honor your pain, honor your struggle for its unique effect on your life, and ignore anyone who tells you to do otherwise.
How you react to your life is your choice, or more aptly, your choices. Choose the path that pushes you beyond your comfort zone into the realm of growth and new possibility, that is where the real healing happens.
One Day Stronger Action Steps
1. Acknowledge your pain. Take out a pen and paper and write down all the ways what you’re going through is awful. Spare no thought. Put it all down: how much it hurts, how many plans are ruined, how your entire future is now gone, how unfair it is, all of it. Write a novel, if need be.
2. Burn it. Yep, take the above, grab a lighter, and burn that shit. Do this somewhere safe that won’t set your house or neighborhood alight. Free yourself from that burden.
3. Take out a new piece of paper and answer this question: How can I choose to act in this situation that is in line with my highest value or a value I want to embody? Have you been wronged and want to cultivate compassion? Have you been hurt and want to use the experience to cultivate more empathy? Write this all down now.