We 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.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.