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