I’m currently spending a week at a really sweet house in Maui. It’s nestled in the jungle, plopped on the side of a volcano. It has a big wrap-around patio, a screened in living room with panoramic views of the ocean. All of those tropical flowers that you pay a lot of money for back home? They grow wild here from every bush and every tree. I’m here nannying two boys while their family is on vacation. It’s a dreamy gig.
Being in this house has finally given me the language and metaphor to describe what I think about pain.
I wish there was one of the those trendy banners for our Facebook profile photos that allowed us to write atop our faces the thing that causes us the most pain. That thing that makes us toss and turn and fail to fall asleep in our beds. That thing that invades our mind right in the middle of that important meeting. That thing that makes us tremble.
I want that because we need to reinvent what we think about pain. We need to stop being afraid of it. And we need to stop feeling shame for it.
We all want to be in the dreamy Maui house and to be here all the time. It’s a sweet place. It’s comfortable. There are gorgeous views. There’s Netflix. And there’s lots of food in the fridge and pantry.
This house represents the comfortable things in our lives. The joys, the celebrations, the relaxation, the rest. These things are all really important and are all really fun. We need all of those things. But what is also really important and what is also totally there (whether we acknowledge it or not) is the jungle that wraps around this house. The jungle is all the messy, not clean, not easy, not comfortable parts of life.
I tried to go trekking through the jungle yesterday. I shimmied right through all the cow pastures. There the cows munch back the forest and it’s (pretty) easy to push through the waist-high grass. But when I got to the forest, I was stuck. I couldn’t get anywhere. I tried to follow pig trails but pigs are smaller than humans and in a dense forest with lots of trees and vines and bushes, “wild pig size” isn’t big enough for me. The forest was disorienting. On the few paths I could follow, I kept getting lost. “Shoot. Did I already pass that vine? Is that the same purple flower as the last one? The same mushroom?” I seriously only got out because the forest is on a slope and I just walked down down down until I hit cow pasture again. I regretted not bringing a machete. I collapsed on the tall tall pasture grass and I took a nap. I was exhausted.
That’s what trekking through pain is like. It makes everything in my body scream, “I am not capable of this. Some beast is going to come kill me.” (Even if nothing venomous or big and dangerous lives on the island, I made up scary stories of scary things.) Pain screams, “I am going to get lost in here. It is hot and uncomfortable in here. I am getting scratched up and hurt. This is too much work. Why did I even try? I am going back.”
And the thing is —we usually don’t even get to the painful parts. We stop before its gets painful because we’re afraid. Our fear of pain becomes our straitjacket.
But if I don’t learn to trek through the jungle, if I don’t learn to trek through the pain and the fear of the pain, that restful house will become a prison. If I don’t teach myself to wade through a little discomfort, to throw some gear on and push through a little pain, I will forever be stuck in the comfortable and I won’t go anywhere. I won’t be able to go down and buy myself all the tasty ethnic foods at the food trucks on the beach. I won’t be able to swim at the beach. I won’t be able to see the whales!
If I had not been shown to trek through pain and if I had not believed that I posses the strength to survive it, my life would be very different. I wouldn’t be an out gay man. I wouldn’t have graduated from Pepperdine because that first year was painful and I almost transferred. I wouldn’t have worked for a safari company in Uganda because would have booked that flight home that I almostttt booked. I wouldn’t have ever left home in general because anytime of change is painful. I would only know whatever I happened to know before. I wouldn’t be learning and growing and becoming.
If it wasn’t for my ability to trek through pain, everything outside my little world of comfort would seem very very scary. I think I would be convinced that the jungle, that the world —was against me. That the world is inherently dangerous.
I’m gearing up to go back into that forest this afternoon. This time I’m going to take a machete. That way I’ll be able to clear a path for the forest that is big enough for me to walk through. I’ll clear a place and a space that works for me. I talked to a friend who also trekked through that forest. She gave me some advice. She told me about some landmarks. She told me how to get around them. She also proved to me that she went in there, went in deep, and that she got out. Now I am confident I can do the same.
Here are the things I first thought about pain. These things are false and a bunch of BS.
Pain is the result of us doing something wrong.
Pain needs to be fixed.
Pain is something to feel ashamed of.
Pain is not what we talk about with our friends or on social media.
Here is what I’ve learned about pain. These things are our superpowers.
Pain is just as natural, normal, human as every other emotion.
Pain is the proof we’re alive.
Pain is always a wise teacher.
Pain is the thing that reveals most about who we are.
Pain binds us to one another.
Pain is going to be the thing that will save our friendships, in person and on the web.
This is what I repeat to myself over and over and over when I’m treading water in pain:
1. I most reveal who I am by my pain. My wounds show what is really there, what is hurt, what matters to me. Those things are so crucial in order to know me.
2. We become bound to one another in our pains. Feeling our own pains gives us the capacity to empathize and to feel others. We’re a social species. We have to be in community. And not fake, cheap, “fitting in” community. Raw, real, authentic, messy, alive community. Without that, we always suffer. Pain and the empathy it allows for is what weaves us together.
3. Pain is the receipt we hold up to show that we have loved, that we have felt, that we have lived. If we want the other stuff, we’ve gotta get to know this too. It’s part of the deal.
4. I possess the strength to walk in and through and out of this pain. I possess the strength to bear all of its parts.
Pain is our ticket to freedom. Without bearing a bit of pain, we’ll always be stuck in the house, and that will turn the house into a prison. When we are not afraid to bear pain and speak pain and befriend pain, we can go anywhere.
Sunday, I’ll end this series by talking about the house. The house is really important.