The One Thing with the Power to Bring Us All Together

Pain and conflict

Photo Credit: henry grey via Compfight cc

On a frenetic Monday morning, I arrived at my office with my thoughts whipping and cyclonic, scrambling to stay ahead of life. When I opened my office door, I practically tripped over my surprise.

Sitting in one of my office chairs was an enormous beach ball, with a note attached: “Just a visual reminder. We love your blog!” (Have I ever mentioned if you can work with thoughtful, caring people you should work with thoughtful, caring people?)

As my laughter died away and my smile lingered, my mind returned to problem-solving mode: the beach ball needed to be deflated before my first appointment.

I sat on the ball and the air began to hiss in expulsion. Slowly. So slowly. As the ball hissed and the clock ticked, I looked around my office at all the trappings of my effort to stay ahead in life:

Three diplomas—representing ten years of my life.

A framed clinical psychologist license—representing another two.

A shelf full of books—representing years of information consumed in an effort to feel interesting.

And I realized: “No amount of schooling, studying or scrambling gets this done faster.” As the ball slowly deflated, I sank to the floor, but I also sank into my own humanity. And I thought: this beach ball is a lot like our pain.

It’s an equalizer.

Competing to Be Unequal

The dictionary defines “equalizer” as anything that makes us alike in value, rank, or merit.

We spend most of our lives avoiding equalizers like the plague, and I think our favorite way of fleeing from equalization is competition.

Competition is our way of saying I’m up here and you’re down there and we are not equal.

And yet.

Regardless of how hard we try, in the end, pain and loss and suffering come for every one of us and they expose all of our competition as one big game of charades. Our pain eventually topples our sense of power and inverts our sense of control.

Suffering is the great equalizer. From herniated disks to surprising loneliness to shocking divorces to unexpected diagnoses, every single one of us will eventually be equalized by pain and suffering—our hierarchies will be erased and the truth revealed: we’re all just humans existing on the same level playing field.

Most of us live in fear of this eventuality. Many of us get depressed when faced with the prison of mortality and our frail humanity. But I think there is another way.

I think we can allow our pain to lead us home. Several nights ago, my sons showed me the way.

Two Equalized Little Boys

The snow was coming down all heavy and slushy and darkness had descended, when our doorbell rang. Standing on our front porch—looking wet and tired but still hopeful—was a young man from the local college. And he carried a shovel.

He told us he had walked many blocks, knocking on doors, hoping to work for a few extra bucks. He told us we were the first door that had opened to him. He asked if he could shovel our driveway for five dollars.

With a grimace, we pointed to the driveway and said, “As you can see, we shoveled recently, and we actually don’t have any cash on us right now.” His eyes got sad—but his smile only flickered—as he wished us well and turned away.

But as he stepped off our porch, my five-year-old son leapt off our couch. Tears welling up in his eyes, he asked frantically, “Can I pay him?” And without waiting for an answer, he ran for his bedroom, returning moments later waving a ten-dollar bill and desperately asking, “Is this enough?”

Watching the scene, my nine-year-old cracked, too. He ran to his room and pulled out his own ten-dollar bill. He returned, shoving it into the hands of his little brother, and said, “Let me pay him.”

Together, they raced to the front door, shouting at the young man to stay, terrified he would get out of ear shot.

My five year old carries a lot of pain. We see it in his deep-solemn eyes all the time. And much of the time, I think, he ends up competing to keep the pain at bay.

But on a snowy March night, he let his pain lead him home.

Going Home By Making Our Home Here

Our pain can lead us home by leading us to create a home, right here in the middle of this broken humanity.

We don’t have to wait until our pain is inevitable and unavoidable—we can choose to let it out of the dungeons of our hearts.

Now.

And we can let in the pain of a fractured humanity.

Now.

And we can let the pain be the common ground upon which we meet each other, separate but equal, different but equally broken, unique but sharing in the suffering of life.

Pain can make little children empty piggy banks for a stranger who doesn’t feel like a stranger anymore because they share the common ground of disappointment and loneliness.  It can lead us home by making every stranger a brother or a sister in this struggle we call living.

When we allow ourselves to feel our pain—when we allow ourselves to feel at home in a world riddled with pain—it will not make our pain disappear. But it will redeem it.

Because redemption isn’t always about making our pain go away—sometimes it’s about choosing how to live it.

My boys showed me how I want to live it…

like a welcome mat,

like a front porch light on a dark night,

like a lighthouse on a stormy sea,

like an invitation on a lonely day.

I want my pain to invite everyone else home.

Can you imagine a world of people equalized by their pain? Can you imagine a world where our sense of home doesn’t end at the front door? Can you imagine a world where every painful moment is redeemed by an ever-expanding community of people surrendered to their humanity?

Can you imagine?

Has pain ever equalized you and drawn you closer to the people you love? Share your experience or any other thoughts in the comments section at the bottom of this post.

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Free eBook: My new eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down, is available free to new blog subscribers. Click here to subscribe, and the subscription confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook. Or, the book is also now available for Kindle and Nook. As always, thank you for reading; it’s a gift. Sincerely, Kelly 

The Mess: The messy places in life—and the messy places within ourselves—present us with a choice. Because the mess is where our shame collides with grace. We can choose to succumb to shame. Or we can fight back. Come visit The Mess, and join the rebellion against shame. 

Preview: My next post will be this Friday and is tentatively entitled “Why Couples Shouldn’t Do Couples Therapy (Says the Couples Therapist).”  

Disclaimer: This post is not professional advice. It should be read as you would read a “self-help” book. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor, who can become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Counselors can be located through your insurance network or through your state psychological association.

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.

  • Juanita

    I wouldn’t have deflated the beach ball on the first place, as you were perhaps in a hurry to do so before your first Monday appointment with a client? Why comparing deflating the ball with suffering? If the suffering was to not be seen by the client with a beach ball in your office, why not been spontaneous? …At the end of the day, that beach ball represented gratitude coming from your clients and a way of making your Monday different. You might have lost the opportunity of looking at that ball during the whole day and enjoying it and you caused suffering upon yourself by deflating the ball. Your choice!?

    • drkellyflanagan

      Whoops, I guess I should clarify a couple things. Those are great questions, Juanita. The beach ball was actually given to me by my colleagues rather than my clients. And unfortunately, my office is so tiny that there would have been nowhere to sit if the ball had stayed inflated! 🙂 But your point is well taken and I think it has to do with letting the therapy process be as messy and spontaneous and transparent as life itself, and I will be taking that reminder into my day with me today. Thank you!

  • Chris

    I don’t have a beachball handy right now. But I love your blog too 🙂

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you, Chris!

  • Jennifer Newell

    I think you are on to something. In the course of unexpected illness, a bridge can be forged and as a result the competition ends. Your family and friend rally around and you can find common ground when in the past you would have let the messy things in life separate you.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Jenn, For the sake of length, I deleted a section about how weddings tend to generate conflict and divisiveness but funerals seem to promote healing and togetherness. I’m with you, I think illness and suffering remind us what is important in the end.

  • Sue O’Donnell

    Your blog, Dr. Kelly, often speaks of our struggle and pain – I love the comments after your post and feel united to those whom read your writing.
    In life, I belong to a group of people who meet together for the purpose of sharing our common pain, together we find experience, strength and hope. We start out as strangers and learn to love each other, united in our pain.
    I value these connections – connections that would never happen if there was no pain in life.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Sue, thanks for sharing this; it is encouraging to hear about people out there connecting in their struggles. And I’m so glad you have tasted some of that here on the blog as well. Keep letting us know how we can deepen that sense of community.

  • KT

    May I just comment, Dr. Kelly, that you actually live the kind of life you describe? You don’t just write about it, you are a light on a dark porch at night.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you, KT. I happen to know you are, too. : )

  • Kim

    Kelly, I love this post, and love the story about your sweet boys. There is something about being honest about suffering that brings people together. I’m learning more and more that I don’t have to hide it….that when I share my struggles, it’s an invitation for people around me to share theirs, and our connections deepen.

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  • Rachel

    Hi Dr Kelly, it’s Rachel from FB.

    I actually mentioned that I wouldn’t be asking you for specialized counseling and I intend to honour this promise. But I just need to ask you something. Perhaps you might be able to point me in the right direction.

    I am 25 this year, and have been struggling with deep sadness for many years. This has affected a lot of things, namely school, work. I have the minimal qualifications mandated by our country (Singapore). I need to talk to someone, and perhaps get some medication at the same time.
    I am seeing a counselor but I don’t think it is working; I have been to a psychologist before and was prescribed what I call ‘happy’ pills that only serve to empty me of every emotion so it is easier to feel ‘happy’. He seemed to only be concerned about prescribing me medication. A hypnotherapist didn’t help too.
    Are you able to suggest if I should see a psychologist/psychiatrist/counselor/therapist? Do you know of any good ones in my country pls?
    Thanks so much 🙂

    • drkellyflanagan

      Hi Rachel, I’m sorry to hear about your situation, and unfortunately, I’m not familiar with mental health services outside of the U.S. Again, I can’t give specific advice, but I can say that generally I recommend that when someone is unhappy with how their therapy is going, they attempt to work through this with their therapist. Often, this is a positive turning point in therapy. If the therapist is not secure enough to do so, then a person always has the option of seeking a new therapist. Best to you, Rachel, as you seek healing.