The Importance of Being in Pain

Some people in severe pain can’t even fold the laundry, let alone try to keep the house as perfect as you’d see in a Clorox commercial. The dream of a perfect life – unlimited upward mobility, floating in a comfortable financial hammock – all this is off the table, for now at least. The dream has been shattered, so who are you now?

The advantage of being in pain, or dealing with a disability like this, is that you aren’t waiting to live a more present and meaningful life. You aren’t waiting until you get your ducks in a row: until your bank account swells to X, until you get promoted, until you have more time, until you feel ready to change. There isn’t any waiting because the narrative of a linear trajectory toward security and success has been debunked. You can start right now; in the mess, in the chaos. You can make your home in this instability and not knowing. You can step into it.

It seems quite easy to spend a life trying to get that same life in order: obtain the right setting where, theoretically, a happy life could take place. Find the perfect neighborhood, perfect apartment, comfy car, clothes, etc. But do we ever get to the living? What’s left over?

When you’ve been dealt a chronic condition like many people (including myself) wrestle with, it’s possible to actually contact a sense of relief. It’s like, ‘Relax, you’re not going to the Olympics anymore. You don’t have to go to the Olympics anymore.’ That whole project of how you were going to work really hard to make the external conditions in your life as perfect as possible – well, the impossibility of that becomes quite clear.

What’s best about a health crisis like this (if I can use language like that), is that you didn’t “chicken out.” You tried to keep everything intact and not let the pain or disability slow you down. Like an injured athlete in a crucial game, you kept limping back onto the court valiantly, but the decision wasn’t yours to make. Your health got in the way of your plans.

It’s not as if pain absolves us from making efforts toward a better life. I think we all know that living with pain requires an unusual amount of effort. What pain does, however, is make us be more intentional about where we apply our effort. When we can’t fully participate in the daily struggle to seem productive, successful, and put-together, we find that, like Thoreau and his cabin in the woods, we have a rare chance “to live deliberately…and suck out all the marrow of life.”

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