The Beauty of Pain
—The Princess Bride
One of the greatest tragedies of our current culture, I think, is what is best described as the "cult of safety." I’m not sure how we got here, and I’m not sure it’s new, but between technology and generations upon generations of first world societies getting better and better at avoiding death and domestic insecurity, we’ve somehow arrived at not just making pain our enemy (that’s nothing new) but willfully shutting our eyes and putting our hands over our ears whenever the enemy comes close. Of not just projecting the idea of enemy onto groups of people and concepts and ideas (also not at all new) but wrapping that technology around it until we are truly blind and deaf not just to pain but sometimes to life itself. We lose track of self, of growth, of possibility, spending our entire incarnate existence trying to not notice what that existence is. But if there is one truth I’m willing to stand up for outside my own point of view, a root value and understanding I’m convinced unites me with all other humans no matter what they believe or desire, is that life, by its definition, is nothing but pain—and that this state is not a tragedy but a wonder to be embraced, celebrated, and above all utilized.
I am not really a theist. My spirituality is an eclectic mess of astrology, paganism, ritualism, Hindism, Buddism, natural law, and above all Christianty, as the latter is how I was raised. I borrow liberally from all those beliefs, but I won’t subscribe to a single creed any longer. With great passion I believe in each individual’s not just right but need to do the same, believing in one creed or many, changing his or her mind as necessary, converting on deathbeds or whatever must be done to achieve personal peace, and I believe with just as much zeal in shutting down any group’s effort to stamp out the rights of others to follow their own creed. I find the struggle between these personal missions to be healthy and good, even though it can have ugly and painful consequences. The only cult I find truly disturbing is the one that advocates safety above all things. And it’s a fine line between craving and worshipping safety. It’s the metaphorical difference between owning a few guns because it makes one feel safe and a basement arsenal serving as fuel for single-minded focus on eradicating all possible enemies, key word there being "possible." It’s using each stab of pain from life not as a lesson or personal struggle or simply an opportunity to meditate actively in impermanence or uncertainty but to retreat further and further into a determination never to feel pain again.
One of my favorite stories of pain is in the movie Gladiator. The hero works hard, maintains his personal moral code, struggles against heavy blows to it, endures great pain over and over, is used and abused as a pawn, and yet each step of the way he never loses sight of his self. He leads others to their own redemption by his unwavering sense of personal worth and purpose. He faces fear over and over again, and though it rips him physically and mentally to shreds, ultimately killing him, never does he lose himself. Never does he surrender to the fear and let it take him, rule him, suck him into the dark pit of despair. At the end of the movie he dies, but his death is not a tragedy. It is his reward, and he goes, as the film shows us, not into darkness or despair as the fear whispered to him but to the heaven he desires above all heavens, the reward for the life he lived he believes he deserves, and indeed does deserve.
Another movie which I don’t exactly love but love parts of is What Dreams May Come. I love the idea of a heaven one creates, and I love too the idea of a hell one creates. That the hero’s wife is lost because she could only see despair, that she cannot see heaven not because too many bad things happened to her but because she chose to give in to the bad things, that she lost sight of good and self and purpose and power and gave everything she had to despair in the tragic belief that it would keep her safe.
This too is my cross. There is no safe. There is no certain path that can be found to protect my self; there is only confusion and pain, and I must make what I can of it—and accept, too, when I don’t possess enough power to challenge it. My only quibble with what the world has tried to teach me is that there is a safe. That I can be good enough, smart enough, obedient enough, pretty enough, shrewd enough, removed enough, involved enough to achieve anything with surety. That there is no map, no list of rules, no secret ritual others have been shown which gave them happiness I have been denied. As with all things this was no active lesson. My mother and father didn’t teach this to me, nor did my church, nor school, nor anyone or anything, not directly. To be sure, I actively supplied the part of the story where safety could be discovered. What I wish now I had been told with directness was that I could not find this. I wish more people and ideas had challenged me and made me angry over the idea that nothing was certain but the continued possibility of pain and loss and confusion, but that equally certain was the continued possibility of love and hope and success, and enlightenment. That life is a game to be played, not won. That I will find truths only to lose them, that I will rejoice only to find that joy turn to ash. That I will weep only to find that tragedy turned to beauty and new life.
Probably I got a lot of this and just ignored it. So really, I don’t wish anything different, because my path is my path, and I won’t trade it for anyone’s, not a single step or breath of it.
I am not a theist, but I am a dualist. I love the myth of God and the Devil. I love pain and joy. I love uncertainty and illumination. I love that nothing can be known because we each see from the dark behind our own eyes, storing all within a self which can, not while living, truly unite with even a single other soul, and therefore even though we are none of us alone, we are all of us alone. I love contradictions. I love philosophies, especially the ones which by the time you get to the end of them turn themselves and you inside out until you can’t even speak what you find. You must paint it or write it or sing it or construct it or perform it, and even then you know no one will ever see what you did, not exactly, only seeing your "truth" through their own distorted lenses. I love the mess that life is.
And above all I know that not a single moment of this strange dance would be possible without pain. Pain is what makes true love sweet. Pain is what makes an infant’s survival to that squalling moment of birth a miracle. Pain is what makes a wedding contradictorily full of tears. Pain is what makes reunions and revelations such joyful exaltations of spirit.
Pain is the darkness within which joy shines.
Pain is our teacher. Pain is our opponent. Pain is the wall that keeps us away from our desires. Pain is what teaches us what our desires are. Pain teaches us our limits. Pain teaches us our strengths. Pain shows us where we are arrogant and wise. Pain is the fabric upon which all life is stitched, each beautiful shining strand.
Life is pain, and pain is life. Bless you, pain, and thank you, my sweet companion, my foundation, my challenger, my enemy, my lover, my life. You who love me so much to keep coming even when I despise you, you who is not my advocate but my antagonist. Bless you and may I learn better each day how to respect you, dance with you, and love you.