(What Your Dentist Knows) About the Secret to Life

walking through pain into a big worldWe think the secret to life is achievement and status and comfort and painlessness. But we’re wrong. The secret to life lies elsewhere. I know, because my dentist told me…

“Until you can completely feel pain again, don’t eat anything.”

I was sitting in the dental chair last week—the right side of my face numb and drooping—when he said it, when my dentist told me the secret to life.

Our pain is the secret to life.

We can’t even eat unless we’re capable of feeling it.

Yet, we are a people obsessed with avoiding our pain. The DEA reports sales of prescription painkillers increased sixteen-fold in the last ten years. Oxycodone and hydrocodone are the two most popular painkillers—in 2010, pharmacies distributed 111 tons of those pills.

In the U.S. alone.

We build our lives around comfort and safety and ease. We feel entitled to painless living. Both physically and emotionally. We will go to great lengths to avoid our interior pain—our sadness, grief, powerlessness, fear, despair, shame, and anger. As Carl Jung said, “People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own soul.”

But what is the psychological equivalent of a painkilling pill?

I think we numb our psychological pain with myth.

By myth, I mean the ever-so-slightly deceptive stories we tell ourselves. About ourselves. About other people. About the world we live in. Our personal myths are the beliefs that protect us from the pain of life.*

Young men will tell themselves they love the bachelor lifestyle, so they don’t have to enter into the sweaty-browed risk of real intimacy and their own sense of inadequacy.

Young women will tell themselves they are in charge—and every weekend it’s the same bed but a different man—so they never have to acknowledge how empty it feels when they are finally alone.

We put doctors on pedestals, so we don’t have to fully feel the terror of the disease.

People who have given up on this life will survive it by adopting a set of rules that will guarantee there place in another life.

Perhaps (and this one haunts me), some of us may even write blog posts about redemption and compassion, so we can feel satisfied with our effort and avoid some of the painful work of love in our own lives.

And our myths protect us against the details of our story that feel too painful to acknowledge: the haunting vacancy in the eyes of our parents, the desperate race for worth in a family who dressed up competition as nurturance, the bitter loneliness of the schoolyard taunts, the aching regret about sleeping with that guy freshman year, the nagging emptiness of a paycheck with no meaning, or the walking-on-eggshells way of life in a household dominated by one person’s anger.

Our myths keep the pain of reality at bay, and so they sustain us with a false sense of freedom.

But what if we’re like puppies, chasing our tails inside the comfort of a grassy yard, thinking we’re free, when we’re actually imprisoned? What if our pain is like an invisible electrical fence, keeping us penned in and depriving us of a vast world and the freedom to fully live in it? What if our personal myths are just Kibbles ‘n Bits—pacifying morsels that keep us from deciding to walk through our pain into the freedom of fully living?

What would it look like to freely enter into our pain and walk through it? What might a life of freedom look like on the other side of our pain?

Earlier this summer, Chicagoland was in the throes of another heat wave. Through thick evening air, cicadas protested the end of day and crickets welcomed the night. I was with family, celebrating a birthday, and I was embroiled in an intense battle. I had the upper hand. My boys had water guns.

But I had the hose.

I smugly enjoyed the power as they approached me with their feeble weapons, and I drenched them in a cold-stinging flood from the hose. I had no intention of getting wet and spending the evening in the discomfort of wet-clinging attire. And the kids were powerless against me.

But then something happened.

My oldest son started to walk toward me with a different kind of look on his face. It was peaceful and determined and somehow knowing. I warned him to step back. But he kept walking.

So, I sprayed him.

But Aidan just kept walking forward into the jet of water, throwing his head back and letting loose a maniacal scream. And when he was within range, he raised his water gun and opened fire on me.

He was William Wallace with a super soaker.

And, this may sound a little strange, but I suddenly felt powerless. Aidan was attached to nothing. He had no interest in staying comfortable or painless. He didn’t care about the wet, the cold, or the sting. He had welcomed the discomfort and the pain—it no longer controlled him, and consequently he had become incredibly powerful.

I think the willingness to walk into our pain sets us free, and I think that kind of freedom makes us a powerful people.

In a culture that says we should be working at all costs to numb our pain, the therapeutic experience is a place of rebellion. In the paraphrased words of Peter Rollins, it is “nothing less than the taking place of the Real. It is the incoming of that which cannot be contained in our various mythologies, that which ruptures them and calls them into question.” I am always in awe of my clients, who for one hour a week choose to question their myths and walk through the pain of it.

In the therapeutic space, people are deciding the tiny-comfortable yard-of-life, in which they have been wearing a path, is no longer big enough for them. They are insisting there is more to life. They have decided there is a vast, beautiful world waiting for them—a world they are missing and that is missing them. They have decided to forsake their myths in favor of the real, and they are stepping directly into the pain of their invisible fences.

And they are learning the pain is intense. But it doesn’t last. If you keep moving into it, keep moving forward, the pain is temporary. And they are stepping onward into the vast freedom of a world completely open to them—a world in which pain is an acceptable consequence of fully living.

They are learning that people are waiting on the other side of the fence, to embrace them, and to walk hand-in-hand with them into the open expanse filled with possibility and wonder.

They are discovering the power of a people who are not absolved of pain, but who are set free from the fear of feeling it.

In the end, the secret to life is this:

The whole wide world is a banquet table, and there is a feast waiting for you. But you don’t get a seat at the table—you can’t eat—until you can feel your pain completely.

That’s what my dentist told me.

Your thoughts? Have you embraced pain in a way that you were able to let it go and move on into fuller living? Please feel free to share your story with us in the comments below.

About the Blog: The next Tuesday Tip will focus on a method for staying present with our pain, rather than running from it. Subscribe in the sidebar and receive the tip, as well as future posts, in your email inbox!

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And always, thank you for reading. It’s a gift.

*For the term “myth,” I owe a debt of gratitude to the recent writing of Peter Rollins.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

24 thoughts on “(What Your Dentist Knows) About the Secret to Life

  1. I’m a stay-at-home Mom and a lot of days, most days lately, I can hardly survive my vocation. These two, twenty months apart, just take, take, take. But I’ve made a choice to endure them on those days. It is really easy to get busy around the house, take them all over town; avoiding actually interacting with them. But I know that that wouldn’t be good for me or them. So, as far as I am able on that day, I live through the pain of my helplessness, my loneliness, my frustration, my feelings of failure. I don’t know what this is going to result in because I’m still just doing it, but it must better than escaping, since escape results in nothing.

    • Kelly, I appreciated reading the personal application of the post on your blog. I remember you commenting on “I Love My Kids,” as well. I do hope this week is an opportunity for you to be further formed in the midst of the struggle of parenting. Blessings to you as you make that sacrifice!

  2. Wow, Kelly. This post is so beautiful and so full of truth. Reading it, I felt a little anxious…because as much as I’ve faced and walked through my pain, it’s always an uphill battle with myself. Thank you for this awesome reminder.

    I LOVED the story about your son and the water gun, by the way. 🙂

  3. Kelly (stay-at-home Mom),

    I hear your pain and your heart. Living day by day, even moment by moment – that’s exactly what Jesus said to do. We are not supposed to regret yesterday or worry about tomorrow. But it’s hard to do.

    Sometimes I struggle because I’M trying to do it. But Jesus also said if we are troubled and heavily weighed down we should come to him because he will take our load and HIS load that replaces it is not heavy. What did he mean?

    Seventeen years ago I lost my wife to cancer. We had already learned not to live our own lives but to let Jesus live his life in us and through us. Not perfectly of course! And we both grew better at it through the experience of her illness and death. Jesus brought us through and grew us in the process.

    I’m still learning how to let him live in me, and I’m still learning (like you, Kelly) to take each day individually. Every day now contains a little pain and a lot of joy. The pain is often used to change me more into the image of Christ, there’s always the opportunity even if I don’t always seize it. And the joy is in the beauty of the world, the beauty of relationships, and the beauty of Christ himself. There’s joy even in glimpsing a tiny daisy in the grass!


    Kelly (Flanagan) wrote, ‘The whole wide world is a banquet table, and there is a feast waiting for you. But you don’t get a seat at the table—you can’t eat—until you can feel your pain completely.

    That’s what my dentist told me.’

    Your dentist was correct!

  4. Yes, I have found the secret in ‘feeling’ the pain but it took a long time and many trips around Mt. Sinai before I finally got it. Thank you for such an enlightening post!! I am in process of publishing my book of freedom from the ravishes of childhood sexual abuse, spiritual abuse, my child being a victim, ministry addiction , divorce and finally getting it and walking into complete freedom and life. Today I am a life coach. You can read my blog at http://reflectionsofgracehome.wordpress.com/ ……blessings to you!!

    • Dixie, Thanks for directing us to your blog, I’m looking forward to checking it out. And best of luck with publishing!

  5. We have a good God who loves mankind and sets the banquet of the world before everyone, sinner and saint. The problem of pain, addressed by CS Lewis in his book of that name, and addressed here is so very real to each human soul. These are good questions to ask, the ones asked here in this blog article. Thank you for posting! This article encouarges me to continue to walk closely with my Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. God bless you!

  6. A chaplain who goes to our church leads a grief support group where the grieving are encouraged to “lean into” their grief. Your thoughts remind me of that advice. To not avoid pain or deny it or run from it but to lean into it, face it, learn from it and grow. Sometimes we have to open the wound to let it heal. And it hurts for a while, but in the end, at least from my experience, it has made me more compassionate toward and aware of those who hurt and it gives me credibility to say, “you’re gonna get through this. It’s going to hurt, but it’s not going to kill you. Trust me. I’ll help yoy walk through it.” No one wants to hurt, but it reminds us we’re alive. Great post, Kelly.

    • Lisa and Margaret, Thank you for your responses. I’m pleasantly surprised by the response from people of faith to this post. I’m aware of all the ways we can use faith to escape pain, rather than walk through it, so it’s an encouragement to hear your thoughts! Lisa, your thoughts about pain growing our compassion reminds me of a book co-authored by Henri Nouwen, with the title, “Compassion.”

  7. Kelly,

    Thanks so much for your post. I’m living this right now. I run from my pain by eating. I recently had a breakthrough experience. Lunch hour–running to the store. I was feeling stressed, alone, and tense. I said to myself, I’ll get something tasty, sweet, and forget about everything. There I was staring at cookies in the cookie aisle when a quiet voice said, “let yourself feel the pain.” I took a deep breath and let myself feel it fully–in my stomach, the tightness, the fear. I told myself it wouldn’t kill me and wouldn’t last forever. I walked away without buying any cookies. Sure, the pull to go back was soooo strong. But I didn’t respond. Mind you, I usually get the cookies, but I’m hoping to let myself feel the pain again and again. Please keep writing–you are truly a Godsend!

    • Alisa, That. Is. Awesome. You have courage to spare. Thank you for sharing it with us!

  8. Dr. Flanagan,

    Brilliant!!! Thank you for drawing our hearts into an awareness of our self-imposed prisons.

    I’ve come to believe pain is a gift from God.

    The essential characteristic of leprosy is a loss of feeling in the nerves. In the absence of pain, a person who breaks their ankle or cuts their arm is unable to feel that something is wrong. They may continue to walk on a broken ankle, causing irreparable damage, or fail to disinfect and bandage a wound which leads to further disease. It is not the disease itself which cause the body to rot rather, in the absence of pain is a failure to respond to a wound which needs to be tended.

    Emotion pain is the same. It signals the heart that something is terribly wrong. It alerts us to the wounds in our soul which need to be tended. When we ignore our emotional pain and buy into our “myths”, we become numb, and it is the heart and soul which are left to slowly rot.
    God gave us pain as a gift not to scare us away from life, but to keep us safe that we may experience and fully embrace life!

    • Heather, Thanks for drawing the connection to leprosy! For those following the comments and interested in the connection between pain and leprosy, two great books by Dr. Paul Brand: “Fearfully and Wonderfully Made” and “In His Image.” Thanks for sharing this, Heather!

  9. Reblogged this on myinnerfatman and commented:
    This little tidbit sparked something in me and I thought I’d share.

    While the original post is geared towards personal relationships, the message holds true across many parts of life.
    Without pain, we are not alive.
    Running goals. Fitness goals. Weight loss goals. If they are real goals that push you, they will all involve pain. And when you feel that pain, you can either run away from it and quit, or embrace it for what it is, accept it as part of doing something worth doing, and use that pain to get victory, success, and elevate yourself above where you were before you started on your goal.

    Until next time: Don’t let the fat man catch you!

  10. I have been thinking a lot of pain this year. I’m at a place in my life that I feel like things are going well overall for the first time. I am finally feeling somewhat emotionally and spiritually healthy. God has blessed me with a great new job where I am appreciated. He has restored my family after 5 intense years of strife and separation. While I am thankful and content, in the back of my mind there is the fear of pain. I don’t want to every go through some of the things that I’ve gone through in the past. The wilderness period I came out of seems so long and arduous, that I fear the future. I don’t want to experience that pain again. I realize that this is not healthy but I’m not sure what I can do about it. I’m still trying to find the answer to how I can accept it.

    • Thank you for sharing your story with us. Your sentiments resonate deeply with me. How do we find this small place where we would prefer to NEVER feel the pain again, yet not be fearful of facing it when it comes. This might be the work of our lives…

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  12. As a doula, I see the trend of medicalized, anesthetized birth as a real world example of how fear of and avoidance of pain disempower women (and their partners) at a critical time in the formation of a family. In my own experiences giving birth 6 times unmedicated, I came face to face with that fear, and having learned to embrace and welcome the pain and discomfort in those births, I became empowered and strengthened in knowing and trusting myself. I have applied that experiential knowledge throughout my life, and try to encourage women to test their ability to face into that pain, to embrace it, even welcome it, and come out changed and ready to face whatever parenthood (and life!) throws our way. Becoming disenchanted with our myth of control (and seriously, who really thinks they can control birth???) is the beginning of freedom. So what your dentist taught you, my birth experiences have taught me. Pain is not the enemy, just a doorway to greater life, power and freedom.

    • Cindy, I like the idea of natural birth being an experience that prepares you for what comes later in life, not just an experience to be endured and forgotten. Thank you for sharing this!

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  15. There’s this beautiful poetry on exactly what you’ve mentioned in the article by the poet Rumi:

    This being human is a guest house.
    Every morning a new arrival.

    A joy, a depression, a meanness,
    some momentary awareness comes
    as an unexpected visitor.

    Welcome and entertain them all!
    Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
    who violently sweep your house
    empty of its furniture,
    still, treat each guest honorably.
    He may be clearing you out
    for some new delight.

    The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
    meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

    Be grateful for whatever comes.
    because each has been sent
    as a guide from beyond.

    — Jelaluddin Rumi

    The idea being that you can’t control the emotions that you will feel, but admitting them to yourself, letting yourself feel them, and then letting them go is the only way to free yourself as a person and live your life. A way in which you can grow as a person.

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