Learning from pain – both physical and emotional, is by becoming stronger by learning the skills you need to cope.
The other day I was watching a news item on PBS news hour about a person called BJ Miller. The first thing I thought when I saw him was – what a handsome tall guy with a beautiful face. Only in a few seconds, I was to realize that he was not just a beautiful face, but had an even more beautiful heart.
This tall, 6.5 ft lanky guy met with an accident when he was in college. He was riding on top of a train when an electric cable with a power of 11000 volts, went through his watch. When he woke up, he was without both his legs & had lost one arm. He was just starting his life & here he was with 3 amputations. In the years to come, he was also going to lose his sister to suicide.
What would typically come to our minds in this scenario – he must have locked himself up, cried and lost hope. Well the story could have run that way, except it did not. He decided to get a degree in medicine specializing in palliative care. When I heard this term for the first time, I did not know what this field of medicine was, as a matter of fact – I don’t even know if it even existed in a country like India.
But, this is what palliative care is – a specialized medical care for people with serious illnesses, which focuses on providing relief from the symptoms and stress related symptoms of a serious illness. The goal is to improve quality of life for both the patient and the family.
Today he is a Director at the Zen Hospice Project, taking care of people suffering from terminal illnesses.
But the purpose of this article is not to marvel at his spirit, which definitely needs to be applauded, but to realize the fact, that there is a BJ Miller in all of us. We have all reached lows in life at some point in time or the other. My mother used to say – even Lord Ram, who was God himself, had to bear 14 years of Vanwas. We are mere mortals, after all. She used to say that all of us go through our years of Vanwas.
She was right – talk to anyone and they will all have a sad story to relate – those who haven’t got one, will get one in due course of time. Life is a big equalizer, it will equate us all one day when death comes. But even before that, life is all about averages. We all have some very good years and some terribly shitty years, when we hit depths which we could not believe ever existed.
A few years ago, I went for a training on managerial effectiveness and they made us do an exercise – draw a graph of the low points in your life and rate them on a scale of 1 to 10, and how sad you were about those.
I realized that while there were many low points, the pain in the subsequent low points kept on becoming lesser. This is what we call resilience. That is the beauty of pain – it makes us stronger. It makes us a fighter. That’s exactly what Kelly Clarkson’s song says – What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
God never gives us problems which we can’t handle or if he gives us huge problems, he gives us more strength.
Yes, many people in the face of grave pain also chose the easier path of quitting but this is what I have learnt – We all have a survival instinct. Self-preservation is a basic human instinct and no matter how hard life gets, giving it up is even harder…
There is a famous Chinese thinker – one of the best proponents on the theory of warfare – Tsun Szu. There is a book based on his philosophy called Art of War – one of the things he tells us about how to win a war when you are outnumbered by an enemy, is this – once you have been pushed to the wall, your men will fight with valour unmatched because they are not fighting for victory, they are fighting for survival.
This is my philosophy on pain – we all take our time to heal. It is never easy and we all choose our own mechanisms – which no one understands except you. But that is the purpose of Pain – it is a signal from the brain to tell your body that something is wrong somewhere which needs to be repaired. That is how even the human body starts repairing itself – it’s a reflex and we all have it.
But the best thing about pain is this – people become even more determined to be happy once they have been through the lows. And yes, happiness is a state of mind – just like you exercise your body to keep working, you can exercise your mind to be happy. Once you have seen darkness, you know the value of light. When you have seen pain, you know the value of happiness, and are determined to have every moment of it as long as you can.
Another great thing about pain is this – if you know how to harness it – and eventually we all do, it can be the greatest catalyst and tectonic shift in life. I have never seen happiness change people. But I have seen transformation in people after going through painful episodes. Go back into history and it was a devastation to individuals which set them out on a path which did not just change their lives but the entire course of history.
It was the humiliation of Chanakaya, which destroyed the Nanda dynasty. The great poet Milton wrote his masterpiece when he lost his vision. While success has potential to alter us in a negative fashion, pain alters us for the better – it makes us a better and not necessarily a bitter human being.
We understand the pain of others. It is not easy for us to just walk away from someone in pain because we see ourselves in that person, and how we would have loved it if someone had extended a helping hand to us when we were in need.
Alternatively, an act of kindness in our troubled times is never forgotten and we do try to pay it forward when we find ourselves at the giving end.
Another big advantage of pain is that it brings us closer to our own selves. We all shut ourselves down for some time, when a bug or virus of misfortune hits our system. But during that time we analyse, at times, overanalyze and start understanding ourselves better. We do not turn outward for courage – you perhaps cannot turn outward because as they say during bad times, even your shadow leaves your side.
Therefore, we reach our own heart’s depth to find that courage. In the Kurukshetra of our lives, we are not just the Arjuns, we become our own Krishna as well. Strangely, we all turn a bit spiritual during that time – sometimes Faith in God, helps us find faith in ourselves and gives us the courage to carry on despite all odds… And when you reboot the system, it gives you a much better performance.
We become a better person because the greatest battles in this world are not fought with others but it is with the dark forces within you. If you lose the battle within, there is no hope for you. As they say, God helps those who help themselves.
There goes a famous saying that even animals do something to elevate their own pain but it is human beings who discover a higher purpose in their pain. Sometimes, a cure for our own pain is not in our hands but we try to elevate it by helping others. Many people decide to become doctors after losing their near and dear ones to illness.
Pain mellows us and teaches us humility. For we know better now, that nothing lasts forever – be it good times or the bad ones. It gives your character depth and gravity. It makes us less judgmental, and more accepting of people’s behaviour because we give them the benefit of doubt that whatever makes that person happy is acceptable.
Pain teaches us to enjoy the smallest of joys which we take for granted most of the times. In case of B J Miller, he tells of a moment when he was in a hospital room and a nurse stealthily brought in a ball of ice from the snowfall outside for him to hold. He speaks of the joy he felt as the ice melted away in his hand.
I enjoy the experience of taking a lazily long hot shower listening to music on my phone because I have known times when I had to take a bath at 5.30 in the morning since there were 3 people sharing a bathroom as we all had to leave by 7.30 in morning. I don’t know if it comes in the category of pain but it certainly was stressful rushing through your entire day without being able to enjoy anything.
I had suffered a severe bout of sciatica pain last year which left me bed ridden for about 15 days and I had to literally relearn walking as I needed a stick to walk for a few months. I could not sit or stand for long as it used to give excruciating pain. So when I started walking again, I loved sitting in the warm sun during cold winter of Delhi on my terrace as if I had missed a dear friend for so long.
We often neglect the small pleasures that life gives us every day and keep running after big achievements which come once in years until we go through an episode when all that we took for granted becomes an unattainable dream.
Then we learn to live again, enjoy every moment of simple pleasures which we forgot to thank God for – the time to just laze around, the feeling of water droplets on our body, the warmth of sunshine, the ability to move around and see the world. Yes, pain brings us closer to life – rather it makes us appreciate life and find life every day all over again.
When I say pain – I do not just mean physical pain, but mental agony and emotional distress too. Even the day to day stress can be a pain. Anything that takes away our ability to enjoy life, I would call pain and the times when we don’t even realise that we are missing out on life – I would call that a silent pain, like a silent heart attack – the pain which numbed us, which took away our very ability to feel pain.
Pain is not a bad thing – it tells us we are alive, it tells us there is something in our lives which needs to be fixed – a broken heart or body. Not all pain can be cured. Some pain we have to learn to live with – pain which is necessary so that we can be more human and humane. It shows us both the hells in life which we never thought existed and teaches us to fight to get through ordeals which we thought would never end.
Painful episodes also teach you about the people who will stand by you and the ones who will abandon you. But here is something that I learnt – whether someone stands with you or you stand alone, your battles with pain are always very personal, you alone will have to fight the battle within you, with the negative feelings and that side of you which just wants to give up. You alone know how much is at stake if you lose this battle, and only you can convince and motivate yourself to fight back when all seems lost.
We alone know how much it hurts to be in pain, and we will do anything to get out of it. That my dear friends, is the real power and purpose of pain – to teach us that no matter how big an adversity is, our ability to fight back and emerge from it is even bigger.
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