Growing Pains

Last week I wrote about how life isn’t about being comfortable. This week I’m going to discuss why the search for comfort holds us back.

Have you ever seen someone who still rocks the 80s hair? Perms, Sally Brown bangs, even mullets? These people became so comfortable with a style they either refused or were incapable of adapting to changing fashions. While not harmful per se, they sure get a lot of looks and snide comments, don’t they?

And there’s a certain set of people who believe coal mining jobs or factory jobs will make a resurgence in America. They didn’t see the warning signs, they didn’t start learning new skills to adapt to a changing job market, and they got hurt when those blue collar jobs dried up. Some of them voted for Trump because he promised to bring those jobs back, and they continue to put their faith in him despite the fact that those jobs are history and will never return. We’ve progressed too far to turn back. Rather than face the discomfort of change, some people cling to the hope that life will go backward and return to the way it was.

The thing is, staying the same eventually becomes painful. And nobody likes pain. America is in an opioid crisis because we can’t tolerate pain. We take antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds because we can’t stand emotional pain. Maybe we could handle things better if there was less to life, but Americans don’t do “less.” There are so many demands on us that we’re overwhelmed, there are so many loudmouths screaming in our ears, there are too many things to do and too many places to be. We just can’t keep up and we can’t take one more thing. So every straw breaks the camel’s back. When you have all the stress you can handle, any discomfort is too much.

The problem is, discomforts and challenges won’t just go away. But instead of fighting the pain, we can embrace it instead.

Enormous energy is spent fighting. As Americans, we prize fighting. We fight cancer, we fight war, we fight the system, we fight for the right to party. And we fight ourselves. We are encouraged to fight our negative thoughts, to fight depression, to fight exhaustion. If we could just relax into these uncomfortable sensations we might be able to see that they are fabulous learning opportunities. And when we learn from pain, it often goes away.

I spent a lot of time trying to fight against the awful sensations and thoughts that gripped me every time my brain went into emergency mode due to damage caused by lorazepam. I became afraid of these sensations. As you can imagine, being afraid of fight-or-flight sent me straight into it. It was counterproductive, to say the least. It was only when I decided to accept the discomfort that I relaxed and the sensations were less intense.

When I am in pain from my Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, if I fight against it I make it worse because my muscles tense up and add to the pain. If I relax, the pain lessens.

If someone says something that I find offensive, I don’t waste my time anymore arguing my point. I ask myself why I’m offended. Sometimes it’s because the person is treating other people badly, but often I feel offended because I recognize a little truth in myself and am trying to avoid feeling flawed. Which, of course, does not fix the problem. If there is something inside myself I am not okay with, I need to address that. Hiding from it solves nothing. The pain is still there, I am just attempting not to feel it.

When I became so sick from the lorazepam that death would have been merciful, I had two options: give up, or embrace my pain and grow. Since I had children who needed me, giving up was out of the question. So I had to grow. And grow I did. I looked for the lesson in every discomfort and I found it, and when I found it I felt amazing. Pain transformed into transcendence. I entered a state of peace and contentment. People often reach this state when they have a terminal illness. When they get to the point where they accept what is, they find peace. Luckily, you don’t have to wait until you’re dying to find it yourself. You just need the courage to look pain and discomfort in the face and learn the lessons they teach.

This is not for the faint of heart. It’s not a quick fix and not something you do once and never have to do it again. It’s a never-ending process that you need to practice every day. It’s work. But it’s work that has the biggest payoff imaginable. Nothing is more precious than inner peace in a life full of chaos.

In our culture of guns and violence and stubborn opinions, to choose to accept and examine discomfort flies in the face of what is expected. When one person shouts, someone else shouts back. But when we have inner peace we can understand that the shouter’s problem is their own and not ours, and we needn’t take it personally or respond in kind. If we feel angry or afraid we can accept that feeling and examine it later instead of acting on it to try and relieve the pressure. When we respond to pain with peace, we change the world for the better.

When I was a kid, I liked the movie The Neverending Story. Urgl’s words to Atreyu have always stuck with me: “It has to hurt if it’s to heal.” And so it is with emotional discomfort as well as physical. Uncomfortable feelings will not heal until they are attended to.

In a world of snowflakes and everyone striving to surround themselves with comforting sameness, we can choose to be courageous and look at why things make us uncomfortable rather than blindly reacting. When we can be comfortable with ourselves, we can be comfortable with any situation we might face, even if it’s painful. As the Buddhists say, pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.

Courage is not declaring war against your enemy, it’s coming to peace with yourself.

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