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Why a World Without Pain is a Wasteland

October 8, 2013

pain 5Some years ago I attended an Easter brunch at some friends of my parents. It was a warm, wonderful occasion filled with people I’d known all my life, and who, through their example, had somehow always managed to make a better person out of me.

I was seated next to a young man named Tim, who I hadn’t seen since he was yay-high – cute and rambunctious, covered in some form of dirt from head to toe like most little boys. But by the time this Easter brunch rolled around, Tim was a man in every sense of the word – a U.S. Marine, in fact, who had recently returned from a tour in Iraq. A husband.

It is the tradition in Tim’s family to do military service before embarking on a career in law or medicine. In Tim’s case, he’d been planning to start law school in the fall, and a family with his wife, Kelly, right away.

But soon after his return, Kelly, who had been complaining of headaches and blurred vision, was diagnosed with an inoperable, terminal brain tumor. Lovely, bright twenty-four year old Kelly.

Within a matter of months, she was gone.
pain 4

“It’s downright un-American,” a friend had told me just a couple of months earlier, after our baby was diagnosed with a tumor in utero. She was being ironic, but her point was made to me days later by a doctor who said with a completely straight face, “I can only imagine how you must be feeling. You must be asking yourself, ‘how could this happen to someone like me, who is educated and…” He searched for the right word, but failed to find it, letting his sentence taper off.

I knew the word, though. The word was entitled.

Entitlement is something with which I’ve always had a complicated relationship. I most certainly feel a great sense of entitlement – no doubt about that – but what complicates things is that I know what the other side is like, too. I did, after all, grow up in a family whose problems began with capital letters: Communism, Russians, Germans, Nazis.

The women in my family smoked their 120 cigarettes and drank their tar-black coffee while they talked about Stalin as if they’d known him personally. The men talked very little unless you asked. Their pain was exhibited in their complete absence of self-pity, their sense of duty, and their wry smile. To this day, due to my family’s influence, I cannot bear a whiner.

So, that doctor was wrong about me. Sort of.

But he probably wasn’t wrong about most of the folks he has to break bad news to. Many of us Americans, regardless of race, gender and socio-economic background, feel a considerable sense of outrage when it comes to hard luck. If you have any doubt, just try to explain to a mother from a famine-ravaged nation that the poor in our country are overweight and often have televisions, cell phones, and designer sneakers. We Americans have always had a different definition of what constitutes quality of life than much of the outside world – and thank God for that. It has raised the standard for the world at large.

But there is a dark side to the way we flinch from pain and tend to scream “It’s not fair!” like an adolescent when things go tragically wrong. If you spend your life running from pain, you never get to experience the elegant beauty in grief, the myriad of blessings you can receive if you open your heart to whatever gut-wrenching experience has been visited upon you.
into the light

Let me be clear, I’ve hated every morsel of pain that I’ve ever had to choke down. And if I think I can avoid pain, I don’t just do a side-step, I RUN LIKE HELL. I hate that my daughter was born anything less than perfect. I hate that Tim had to lose Kelly and all the dreams they’d planned for their life together.

I can’t speak for Tim, but I know the pain I’ve had to endure has given every bit as much as it has taken away.

I now understand why, despite the political oppression my mother experienced in communist Czechoslovakia, despite being orphaned and left in the hands of cruel and resentful relatives, despite being thrown in prison for trying to escape to America, despite the death of her son – she continues to believe in the good of human kind, and often with more passion and faith than someone who has led a much easier life. It is because part of what comes with pain is the sweet knowledge that there are people you hardly know who come to your aid and save your life, that you have been dragged kicking and screaming into being a better person, and that whatever peace of mind you lost has been replaced by a gracious acceptance of whatever life has to offer.

It is why the slum-dwellers in India smile. It is why the Jews are famous for their sense of humor and the Slavs for their unbearable lightness.

It is perhaps why Tim approached me as I was leaving Easter brunch, took my hand and said, “We are so sorry for you and your baby. Kelly and I pray for you every day.”

I was speechless. “Thank you,” was practically all I could utter. We, at least, had hope. He and Kelly had none. I did manage to tell him he and Kelly were in our prayers, too, and he smiled and thanked me as well. “We’re just so grateful for every day we have together,” he said.

Part of me would welcome a world where great people like Tim and Kelly didn’t have to experience such a living nightmare. A world where only the sons of b*****s got it in the neck.

But then I’d have to ask myself what kind of world that would be. A world lacking inspiration, perhaps, resilience, growth.

Pain – aggressive, circumstantial pain (not to be confused with ennui) forces an answer to one of life’s most fundamental questions: What would you do if the worst thing you could possibly imagine happened to you?

It can be a horror to contemplate – no doubt.

But the truth is, in pain there is a purposefulness in every waking hour.

Without pain, the world would be a single-celled organism. It would be the vacuous smile of a beauty contestant, the tiresome political rants of a news junkie, the pretentious ramblings of an artiste.

All day all the time.

So, ask yourself this: could you even bear it? And wouldn’t you, in a world without pain, just want to kill yourself?
last party

From → faith, family, love

  1. So poignant Victoria and so very timely.

  2. Heavy stuff, Victoria. Straight up and honest.

  3. Thanks Tim and Hun. 🙂

  4. Powerful and very deep Victoria. My answer would be it depends on the pain. I cannot even try grasp what someone else has endured, but there are certain pains I would have gladly not endured, nor have I allowed them to define me once conquered.
    I have met so many people I admire some real some cyber (like you) at the way they have handled hardships. I have known others that have used hardship as an excuse to attack and be vile to those near them.
    The entitlement bit is very true and in my humble opinion not altogether “American’ as in other countries that I have lived in or had long visits I have heard people say; ‘that does not happen to families like ours….”
    When people tell me (and they often do) how hard it must be to protect my son with life threatening food allergies I can honestly answer, no it is not. He has amazing food choices and we have adapted and he has gotten better, in leaps and bounds, I just pray that he outgrows them fully by the time he goes off on his own, because he will surely embrace the carefree drinking and adventure that goes with youth, and blurs decision making.
    What has been hard ,and no doctor can solve or explain is the bombardment of mouth ulcers or canker sores he gets (As it is not life threatening it has not been very researched one doctor told us) . He seems to get them less often,but last week his whole face was swollen, that physical pain, is so distracting and dictating of his already complicated teenage moods. I so wish I could find away to protect him from that pain he has endured it for a good 12 years.

  5. Catalina, I’m so sorry. A local mother I know faces your same challenges with her daughter and it’s just awful. Every birthday party is a cause for stress. Every playdate. This mother feels like she has to police the situation constantly.
    I completely agree with you that there is plenty of pain out there that seems like it is purposeless. Child torture prisons in Iraq under Saddam Hussein come to mind. But even some more mundane ones as well. There are a few people in my life I wish had never crossed my path. Don’t think I would miss them for a minute. Not sure the world would miss them either. And you’re right – entitlement is not entirely restricted to our continent. I wrote the piece, actually, after a conversation I had with one of my neighbors, who has had a very hard few years. She talked about pain in a sort of evolutionary way – if that makes sense – and said, “Why else would we be here but to grow? Whole species die, people die – sometimes violently – yet when I’m quiet I can see an elegant purpose to all of this.” Her words gave me a lot to think about that day. She didn’t make it into the post because I was pretty sure she wouldn’t want to be mentioned there – even anonymously.

    • I am very fortunate that I had my Austin so late in life, and that I only had one, so it was a no-brainer to be part of all the play dates and to be aware, we have had our scares the last very scary at SeaWorld or Aquatica when we did not read the label carefully and it was Sherbet (which has Dairy)but they called it Ice which is all water.
      I bow to moms that have several children, only one with food allergies and less resources than we do, how they manage is to be admired.
      I agree on a global level when I read or see things such as the torture prisons mentioned above I just cringe at the senselessness .
      I hope things get better for your neighbor soon.

  6. thedarkphantom permalink

    Dear Victoria,
    Your post struck a deep core in my heart. What a profound, perceptive post, and so true.

  7. Thanks, Mayra 🙂

  8. “Many of us Americans, regardless of race, gender and socio-economic background, feel a considerable sense of outrage when it comes to hard luck” – This is so spot on. Lately I’ve been talking with my guy a lot about perspectives and beliefs. Some days, when something “goes wrong”, I will feel outraged. This isn’t a healthy attitude to have and we’ve begun stepping back and asking: “How bad is this REALLY?” When you question your response to “bad” it really is eye-opening. What a beautiful piece.

  9. Thanks so much Caitlin. I try to do the same.

  10. nomadgomad permalink

    I enjoy to read such honesty in such deep subjects, and you made some great points as well, really inspirational will be sure to keep an eye on your blog 🙂

  11. Ha- There’s no fluff here. I love your blog.
    This one is far too large to fit in this triangle, but I thank you for your thoughts.

  12. You know, before you wrote this , before I read this, I had always thought a world without pain, without emotion would be a perfect place to live. But your right, without pain, without feeling anything, I don’t think the world would be what it is now. Yeah there are shitty people around, but there are also good people, the people that make living possible. Reading this really touched me, thanks for writting 🙂

  13. Reblogged this on samohealing and commented:
    On pain. By a Woman who knows pain.

  14. Thank you so much, Samohealing 🙂

  15. Fran permalink

    I’ve pondered the necessity of pain in our lives, physical as well as spiritual. Thank you for articulating it so precisely. Even though a death of someone beloved is probably the most painful, I really do believe that person has competed a journey, no matter how short. And if they suffer pain before they die, that is also a spiritually enriching lesson. What do we learn? We learn courage, forbearance, patience, appreciation, compassion; the qualities that contribute to our humanity. It is relevant to those who leave this place too soon and to those who are forced to let go of them.fra

  16. Christianforreal permalink

    You know Victoria,

    Not all Americans have that sense of entitlement. Those of us of color definitely don’t. Granted there are many of us who have forged ahead and have risen above the obstacles that have ALWAYS been before us and have made it. We have made it to a place in this country where money is not an issue, however the color of our skin still is an issue. We will never be entitled in your sense of the word. There are many who think that we are entitled to nothing more than what we’ve received over the last 400 or so years. So, we find it difficult to understand what you take for granted is Un-American!

    I do believe that pain helps us to empathize. It helps us to grow mentally and emotionally and it is a promise made to us by our Lord and Saviour!! It should definitely humble us.

    • I so agree that not all Americans feel that sense of entitlement, but I have to say that I’ve seen it across all racial, socio-economic and partisan lines. That’s not a criticism – I actually appreciate that about America. I think our sense of “entitlement,” has raised the bar for the world at large. I just think there’s another side. Pain, failure, and all manner of struggle enrich us, provide texture, context and nurture empathy. I once worked with a teacher who had taught intellectually gifted kids for 40 years and I’ll never forget her telling me, “Some of these kids go on to do great things, but many don’t – because they’ve never been allowed to fail. They watch less gifted kids pass them up and can’t figure out what went wrong. But I’ll tell you waht went wrong. Kids who are allowed to fail learn how to get around obstacles. When they hit a wall, they crawl over it, under it, around it. A lot of the gifted kids will just stare at that wall and not know what to do.” Thanks so much for reading – very thoughtful response.

  17. I am sorry for your pain.
    Thank you for sharing your story, it’s one of affirmation. Your skill with words is a gift to us all, and I thank you for all your emails and blogs. I enjoy these as much as your novels. Keep writing! I’m going to reblog this because it’s inspirational and you put into words what I have been trying to for years.

    Twenty four years ago, when I was thirty eight, I experienced an injury to my spinal cord. I was paralysed from above the waist. I have three children, two boys then aged ten and a girl,four. Staff at the spinal unit rarely predict outcomes – people they think will walk, don’t, and people think won’t walk, do. I regained some mobility and now manage pain well.

    Previously I would have pitied someone in my position. Strange thing is, I love every moment of my life. I enjoy the simplest things, like walking on a beach, in a park, cuddling my grand children, spending time with my kids. I crawl on the floor with the littlies, they jump on my back and play horsies. They take turns to sit on my lap when I go somewhere with them on the wheelchair. They fight to sit on my lap when I’m on the floor with them. I take none of this for granted, Every moment is a joy.

    I joke with people that every morning I wake up is a good day. What I mean also, is that every morning I’m able to stand on my legs and walk to the bathroom is a good day. Every day I’m able to help look after my grand children, is a day to be treasured.

    What pain means to me, physical or emotional, is that I take nothing for granted. Just as steel is forged in great heat, so we grow through struggle.

    • Thank you, Denny. Your story inpired me, too. The best part about writing essays like “pain” is hearing from readers, and getting to know them and their experiences. We are blessed.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. ASMSG Romance Erotica Ezine – Why a World Without Pain is a Wasteland #LifeLessons #ASMSG (Reblog)
  2. ASMSG Horror-Thriller Emagazine – Why a World Without Pain is a Wasteland #LifeLessons #ASMSG (Reblog)

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