What if the shitty thing doesn't teach me anything?
In self-carey circles, we’re often encouraged to look for "The Lesson" in our pain.
We hear about how suffering can make us stronger, or more compassionate. And this can be very useful, to help us find some meaning in the messiness of life.
But sometimes this way of thinking can also feel like a bit of a trap - especially when you’re convinced there is no Lesson, and you’d just like the pain to stop now please.
Something I’ve been thinking about lately. What if the Great Big Painful Thing doesn’t make me stronger? What if it doesn’t have a lesson to teach me?
What if it just hurts?
"What doesn't kill you makes you stronger"
Like most life advice you find on a communal office mug, that’s one of those sayings you can project all sorts of things onto, depending on what mood you’re in.
In a good mood, it’s a note of encouragement, reminding me of the endless human capacity to grow through pain.
But if I’m feeling blown apart, that same phrase feels more like a reprimand. ‘Hey, that thing that’s destroyed you? You survived it. Now get back to work already!’
These are the moments when looking for the silver lining can feel monumentally besides the point.
Sometimes life becomes unacceptable
A while back I wrote about Great Big Painful Things, and what to do when you feel like your life is ruined:
Every now and then, life becomes unacceptable.
It can happen for all sorts of reasons, but it generally comes down to one thing. You’ve lost something that really fucking mattered. Maybe it’s a person. Maybe it’s a job. Maybe it’s your health.
Or maybe you’ve lost the idea of something. Like, an idealised future that for some reason suddenly seems completely out of reach.
When life is unacceptable, every day is another fight with reality. You wake up, remember what’s going on, and feel like shit. Angry. Incredulous. Guilty. Ashamed. Whatever your particular cocktail of emotions, the internal message is clear: ‘life shouldn’t be like this’.
This fight with How Things Are is exhausting. It’s a fight you can’t win, but what else are you supposed to do?
The never-ending fight with How Things Are
I’ve found myself in this very place twice in my life, about ten years apart. Each time, a Great Big Painful Thing had happened, and each time I had a great deal of trouble accepting my new reality, let alone finding The Lesson in it.
The first time around was in my early 20s. After a traumatic event turned my world upside down, I had a two-year Fight With Reality. It ended in a points-decision awarded in favour of just getting on with it (but with life-as-I-knew-it forever changed, in mostly unexpectedly excellent ways.)
More recently, I’ve been engaged in a 2-years-and-counting groundwar with How Things Are.
The persistence of this one continues to surprise me. Like most wars, the point of origin is hazy. The school-history-book version is: two Big Painful Things happened, stacked one on top of the other, and for whatever reason, I still haven’t really gotten over it.
The sheer length of this latest fight with reality has spurred a genuinely surprising level of inventiveness on my part, just to keep moving in a direction that feels like ‘forwards’. I’ve managed to invent new and unusual ways to turn pain into something nourishing (a club for Big Feelings anyone?). Which in turn matches my ability to invent new and unusual ways to torture myself...
I have found the lesson in this pain. So why does it still hurt?
There’s a very particular place you can find yourself in all this, when you’ve been sitting with a Great Big Painful Thing for a while. This is particularly true if you’re an anxious sort who wants to understand why the Great Big Painful Thing is so, well, painful.
It’s that place where you’ve had about 1000 zen epiphanies about your situation already, each one inspired by something great you happened to read that week, or hearing just the right words from a friend at just the right time.
And then a few days later there it still is, your same familiar pain, unmoved in the cold light of that now stale realisation about what it’s all supposed to mean.
More epiphanies! Better ones!
Now, I am a sucker for this ‘what does it all mean?’ thing. So usually, losing faith in my latest epiphany just spurs me on further.
More epiphanies! Better ones, that will last!
Two things drive this I think. One is a genuine, deep-seated love of making sense of messy things. The other driver is plain old fear. Instead of “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”, for me it often feels more like:
If I don’t get stronger, this thing will kill me.
Or worse, eat away slowly at all the good things in my life, as my world narrows more and more. Whether it’s under the weight of this obsessive desire to fix the Thing That Is Wrong, or my equally obsessive desire to learn from the fact that I can’t fix it.
The rush to learn the lesson
And this is the thing. Even when you’ve given up on trying to fix whatever’s gone wrong, you can still get trapped in trying to make it right - by learning some profound lesson from your pain.
Maybe you’ve finally given up on trying to make that relationship work. Maybe you’ve tried everything there is to try for that chronic pain, and are now facing the slow, grisly task of accepting your body’s limitations.
But you still can’t accept the second, equally confronting truth behind whatever’s happened. That some days at least, your pain doesn’t mean anything. It just hurts.
There is a rush to find the lesson of it all, just to try to make the grief bearable.
Making sense of your pain is both vital and doomed
If there’s a theme in my recent groundwar with How Things Are, it’s that any glimpse of peace has come exclusively in those moments when I have given up on improving my situation.
In those fleeting peaceful moments, the temptation is to see those moments as the building blocks of some new, liberated way of living. One in which the Big Painful Thing can’t hurt me anymore.
But of course it will. Whether it’s this Big Painful Thing or the next one... Because one thing humans are very good at is finding problems with How Things Are. And life gives us plenty to work with.
Annihilation ain't quick
Buddhist Nun Pema Chödrön says, "only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible in us be found."
In the same vein, psychedelic researcher-turned-hippy-guru Ram Dass says, "when you are forced to bear the unbearable, something dies in you. What dies in you is who you were that couldn't bear the unbearable."
Both these quotes are profound, hard-won pieces of wisdom from people who've clearly been deep in the existential goo. Both these quotes are also terrifying. They conjure visions of cataclysmic change and loss, and while this line of thinking can bring me great comfort I can also find myself thinking, hurry up with the annihilation already!
But in my experience, the everyday lived experience of Big Painful Things doesn't feel like annihilation - not from the inside at least. It's far from cataclysmic, no matter how high the stakes. Those big, painful life changes can happen to us in an instant, but the aftermath is slow, long, and devastatingly day-to-day.
Finding smaller lessons in the mess
Even if the Big Painful Things are really big, maybe the lessons we take from them don’t have to be?
Maybe this everyday business of being alive relies on smaller takeaways - lessons that are subject to change and revision as we make our way through the mess.
Here's where I'm at with this:
Smaller lesson #1: I am learning not to expect myself to get over this any time soon.
Smaller lesson #2: I am learning to forget lesson #1 regularly and without warning.
Smaller lesson #3: I am learning to take the many insights this pain (and my active response to it) has given me. To cherish these insights, and to know that in a week or two they’ll feel like trite coffee-mug inspo bullshit.
Smaller lesson #4: I am learning to notice when I’m happy.
Learning to weave
Because here is the truly bewildering thing. I’m happy. Really happy - a lot of the time.
Whether I’m watching my gorgeous, behaviourally-challenged dog speeding around the park in full-flight, or spending time with the people I love, I’m happier than I’ve been for ages.
Admittedly, at other times I can find myself afraid, exhausted. Stuck in some repeating nightmare largely of my own imagining.
The life I’m living these days, it’s a kind of a tapestry you know? With the happy bits and the miserable bits woven together. I’m not sure what I’m weaving just yet. In keeping with the whole theme, I imagine this tapestry, once finished, will be equal parts amateurish and delightful.
And I do feel I’m getting better at the weaving. At pulling it all together to something that makes a little more sense than it used to, even if I still don’t have the big picture yet. Even if I never will.
I trust in my craft a little more, year on year. The craft of taking the bad with the good. Or better yet, the craft of taking the really shit with the really special.
Maybe this is what we learn how to do - because we have to, and because we can. This isn't 'The Lesson' exactly. It's just 'learning'. Learning to weave.