My two year old daughter’s final pacifier broke a couple weekends ago. It was both… a blessing and a curse? A blessing in the sense that we’ve been meaning to wean her off of needing it, and this sort of forced our hands. But a curse in the sense that she loved that thing and always needed it when going to bed or down for a nap.
Not surprisingly, the waterworks began on a 40 minute drive back from my parents’ house. My daughter knew that when we’d arrive home, it would be time for her afternoon nap, so she started asking where her pacifier was, knowing full well we had to throw it out a few hours earlier. Our gentle explanation to her didn’t ease her mind, and we spent most of that ride listening to her cry.
Like most parents, my wife and I hate listening to our daughter cry. We love both our girls more than our own lives, so we’d do anything to keep those lovely smiles on their beautiful faces. Wishing suffering upon either of my little girls would be bad parenting, no?
But it’s not just something we do with our little girls, nor is it something only my wife and I do. We’re quick to squash the pain of others through things like distractions.
“Don’t focus on the fact that you lost your job, instead focus on the fact that you have a loving family.”
“The best way to get over somebody is to get under somebody else.”
“Let’s go out and get ice cream instead of thinking about how your grandmother just died.”
Of course, there are good intentions behind these actions. We’re not doing it because we hate anybody; we’re doing it because we love them and don’t like to see them in pain. After all, never ending happiness is the goal and not sitting in pain, right?
Well… is continuous happiness really the goal?
Initially, it’s going to sound sadistic of me to say that happiness isn’t the goal, but stick with me for a minute. The problem with happiness as a goal is that it’s an ever moving target. What makes me happy today may not make me happy tomorrow. I know that 8 year old me used to love Sour Warheads, and I’d take a hard pass on that now as an almost 30 year old. (Do they even make those things anymore?)
Moreover, I think we’re fundamentally robbing somebody of part of the human experience by trying to pull them immediately out of the pain.
I think this is why Western culture is largely so messed up these days. We bury the pain over and over and over again, pretending as if burying it will make it go away forever.
Except we know that isn’t true. At least, it isn’t true much of the time.
Eventually, it all comes spilling out months, years, even decades later. Usually when it comes loose, it isn’t a gentle drop of pain. It’s a breaking of the dam; an overwhelming flood that tears your soul apart. And it can come at the most unexpected of times. Sometimes it is in the middle of a church service, and sometimes it’s in the middle of a work day as you’re sitting in your cubicle typing out an email.
And sadly… even that begins again the whole cycle of seeking immediate happiness to once again suppress the beast.
The Jews have figured this out. When a loved one dies, those individuals in grief usually take a week or so take a break from regular activities like work in order to sit in their pain. Often, the grieving are joined by other loved ones during this time, and this whole time is commonly known as “sitting shiva.”
There are direct biblical roots to this concept, and a prime example of this can be found in the book of Job. You might recall that after Satan (?) destroys Job’s life by killing his family and decimating his possessions, Job spends time in grief surrounded by his friends. (After a few days, of course, his friends then choose to speak up and make fools of themselves by encouraging Job to curse the Lord, but that’s a story for another day.)
As I shared in a post not too long ago, this whole notion of suffering comes from attachment. It’s within our DNA to maintain equilibrium both on a physiological level. We know this through science with adrenaline and our natural “fight or flight” mechanism. In times where the body senses some perceived danger, it jumps into a mode of seeking to get back to that place of feeling safe.
So if that takes place on a physiological level, why can’t the same be true on the emotional level?
Here’s a big difference to keep in mind between the physiological and the emotional levels: we can actually know if we’re out of harm’s way on the physiological level. If I’m in a jungle and encounter a tiger, I know I’m safe after I’ve run away and can no longer see the tiger within my view. But the emotional level? Now that’s very difficult to determine.
On the physiological level, I am attached to my body and to this life as I know it today. On the emotional level, I am attached to a friend, a family member, a lover, a pet, a job… the list goes on. The suffering remains as long as that attachment remains. So when you immediately seek to bury the pain through distractions, you’re not dealing with the underlying attachment.
Let’s harden this with an example. Imagine that you are very close with your father, and after your father’s unexpected death, you choose not to sit in the pain and instead distract yourself by throwing yourself into your work. The attachment rarely goes away naturally. Eventually, you’ll come across a picture of your dad or see a dad having fun with his child on the street and immediately start to feel that pain again. You may find that drowning the pain out with your job isn’t working and choose to escalate the distraction with something like a sexual relationship. When that doesn’t work, maybe you’ll start drinking a few times a week. Then every night. And before you know it, you’re a full blown alcoholic.
Does this story sound familiar?
Granted, not everybody escalates to the level of full blown alcoholism, but in our Western culture, this is way, way too prevalent. I bet every single one of those personally knows an alcoholic, which is just… insane. Insanely sad.
But sitting in the pain isn’t merely about letting go of the attachment. As Father Richard Rohr frequently states, the biggest catalysts for growth come from great love and great suffering. I think back on my pain and realize that the biggest changes I’ve had in my life have stemmed from the bad times. Do I wish to re-experience those times? No, of course not. But I also wouldn’t change the past knowing that I am where I am today.
It’s like Ram Dass has said after experiencing a major stroke in 1997: “I do not wish on you the pain of the stroke. I wish for you the grace that has come from the stroke.”
Friends, there is a beauty within the suffering that leads to growth and new life later. Nobody, especially me, wishes that suffering upon anybody, but just like Ram Dass states, there is goodness to be gained from everything. All is grist for the mill.
So friends, the next time you find yourself in suffering, allow yourself to feel the pain of detachment. Don’t seek to push the pain away immediately. Follow the precedent of our Jewish brothers and sisters and sit shiva. And when you are ready, seek the beauty in life beyond the pain.
If you are close to somebody currently in suffering, it’s probably not good to talk about the content of this post until the time of suffering is over. Seek that balance between being there for the person while still allowing the necessary space for that individual to grow. Remember, sitting shiva is not about seeking to make the pain go away by any means necessary. Sometimes, the best position you can take is silent presence.
(For my little girl, that meant allowing her the short time of suffering through detaching herself from her pacifier so that she could fully enjoy “post-binky” life.)
And if you are the one currently in suffering… give yourself permission to feel the pain. There is no shame nor weakness in grief or mourning. If anything, it is a stronger position because you are choosing to live a full human experience that will eventually blossom into a future full of hope and new love. It’s cleansing the garden of plants that were once beautiful and have now died so that new plants can take their place.
With that, let’s close out this post with the final two lines in a common Jewish prayer known as the “Mourner’s Kaddish.” First in Hebrew, then translated into English.
Y’hei sh’lama raba min sh’maya, v’chayim aleinu v’al kol Yisrael, v’imru: Amen. Oseh shalom bimromav, Hu yaaseh shalom aleinu, v’al kol Yisrael, v’imru: Amen.
May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and all Israel. To which we say: Amen. May the One who creates harmony on high, bring peace to us and to all Israel. To which we say: Amen.