Your Pain Doesn’t Have to Be Productive
Memes that share about the disorienting, and often painful nature of the days between Christmas and New Years, exist for a reason. They seem to point to a collectively shared experience of pain, simultaneously making us more aware of (and seen in) our humanity, while getting to laugh about it.
Most of us, building up to the New Year, are filled with many feelings in reflection on what we did or did not do, during the year prior. We also realize we spent much of that time, trying to be and feel something other than what was most true in each moment.
In other words, we spent much of the year as though we had blinders on, racing to a finish line.
At this imaginary finish line, there is allegedly a better experience or outcome possible for us, if only we push ourselves forward, or at the very least tolerate or get through, our current state.
We then get to the end of a year, feel deflated, and see we are starting the cycle over again. We feel robbed of the “finish line” we had imagined, when it never comes. To add insult to injury, many of us feel the pain of hangovers and having done a number to our physical health, for the sake of “celebrating” the holidays. We believe we have earned this time to celebrate, as the year was a hard one to get through, and this is just what we should do, right? All of this catches up to us in those final days, of each year, and into the beginning of the following one.
Somehow, in these manic exclamations of “Happy New Year!!!”, we feel a pressure to turn it all around, to make our lives hold a frame of meaning, and to transmute the pain and struggle into a transformative experience. That somehow, transforming this pain into action and a better outcome, will make us better, as a person.
If only we could start that diet and exercise plan on the first of January, to make the year leading up to this “resolution” fit a narrative of productivity.
In our dreams of the future, six months from now, beaming with pride and happiness, we play out the way we tell our family, of the arduous hero’s journey we have completed. “I saw what alcohol and carbs were doing to my body, I went to the doctor, and I had a wake up call. I decided I was finally strong enough to go after the body, and the health that I have always wanted. I wouldn’t take back this path at all, because it brought me here.”
Our pain fits a narrative of being a productive part of our own Hero’s Journey.
However, in the face of these dreams of being and doing better, instead of being motivated to transform, most of us see the mountain we must climb, lying just ahead, which we believe will make our pain productive, and we desperately think to our self, “This pain must do something for me, otherwise it is useless. Otherwise, I am spinning my wheels, and stuck.”
Then we go about feeling panic and shame, about being out of control and believing we are too pathetic to do anything effective about it. This is where we perhaps give up on ourselves, and in a defiant, despairing, and/or dissociated resignation, we continue to do more of what has contributed to our pain.
But, what if our pain is just… pain?
What if it is actually not a predictor of whether we are stuck, or spinning wheels? What if it doesn’t at all have to do with outcomes? What if it has no bearing on whether we are worthy or unworthy (e.g. pathetic or not pathetic, empowered or not empowered)? What if we didn’t believe we were lost and hopeless, by virtue of STILL being in pain? What if we didn’t feel as though we needed to do anything to make our pain purposeful or productive?
What if we just stopped trying to be a “hero”, on our “journey”?
You may be asking, “Well, what is the alternative, here? Isn’t it helpful, from an existential perspective to make meaning of the painful experiences we have, in order to feel empowered, and to have a cohesive narrative of self and life?”
Here is my question to you: Does a baby have to be productive with its pain?
When a baby cries, it is allowed to be soothed and cared for, in the moment, with no expectation that it use its pain for a transformative understanding or process.
Babies start out life, not having been enculturated with a sense of space or time, and nor with a sense of having to move forward in this existence as a human, participating in space and time. They just know instinctively, when they feel pain, they feel pain, and need to cry. Before their caretakers teach them that perhaps it is not ok to feel or express emotion, it is built into them to be the pure expression and experience of the pain. Then, five minutes later, they are laughing, being a pure expression of their wonder and joy.
I am not foolish enough to believe we all can revert back to the consciousness of babies, as that would be impossible. This would also lead to a society with very few advancements. We need our capacity to understand and work with our emotions.
However, these babies have something interesting to teach us, about letting go of the belief that our pain must be helping us actively move forward in life, otherwise it is holding us back.
The way of the baby, helps us realize we can possibly let go of needing to make our pain work for us, and force it through a process, that will make us more whole, more desirable, more successful, more…whatever.
So this year, as we sit in this time of reflection, and the pressure to create a spin on, or structure around our pain, in order to make it work for us in 2021, insert a pause and a breath, into the process. Just feel the pain, and that is it. It doesn’t have to me more than this.
We or our pain, don’t have to legitimize ourselves, to exist.
We have been through a lot this year. And, all of what we have been through, doesn’t have to lead to anything groundbreaking or life-changing.
May this New Year be exactly what it is.
Let yourself feel it all.
May you know you have a right be exactly how you are, while you or the world, don’t need to understand it, to make it ok to just feel it.