Our Relationship With Pain

These pains you feel are messengers. Listen to them.” – Rumi

About 15 years ago I was climbing Mt. Whitney in the winter with my friend Jill and about 7 other climbers and 2 guides. Though Mt Whitney claims the prize as the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states at 14,505 feet, by reputation it isn’t a hard climb in the summer.

But in the winter, our approach was a couple of miles longer because the parking lot was snowed in, we had to carry heavy 55 pound packs with all the gear we needed and the route was deep with crappy snow so that even in snowshoes, we were regularly sinking in to our thighs.

I started out feeling fine but by the time we were at about 10,000 feet, my left ear was incredibly painful. I kept trudging along, not listening to the pain because I figured there wasn’t anything I could do about it. By the time we made camp at 12,000 feet I was in tears. Fortunately I didn’t impact the teams plans to climb because a storm with 60 mile per hour winds came through and we all had to go back down the next morning.

Mountaineering books are filled with stories about people who ignored their pain – usually with more dire consequences than my ear on Mt. Whitney. And of course this seems to be a universal human experience to not listen to the signals we are receiving. It’s the topic of my latest Wise and Shine (formerly Pointless Overthinking) blog post: Do You Listen To Your Pain?

(featured photo from Pexels)

Finding What Hurts

I can bear any pain as long as it has meaning.” – Haruki Murakami

Last week, 3-year-old Mr. D had a lot of objections as we were getting into the car to go to preschool. “I don’t like those boots.” And “I don’t want to watch that on my tablet.” And “This isn’t the arm I put into the seat belt.” And “It’s too sunny.”

As I responded to each of the objections, I finally got the a-ha – it wasn’t any of these things that was really wrong. It was that he didn’t want to go to school. He’d been having fun with his sister at home and didn’t want to stop.

It adds to my long list of how confusing it is to be human. First, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what is going on with us. In Atlas of the Heart, Brené Brown cites a survey that she gave out in workshops asking people to list the emotions that they could name as they were having them. “Over the course of five years, we collected these surveys from more than seven thousand people. The average number of emotions named across the surveys was three. The emotions were happy, sad and angry.” Which is stunning that out of our nuanced ranged of emotions, we have trouble identifying many of them at the time we are having them. But I can affirm that it’s almost always on reflection after the fact that I have any emotional literacy.

Secondly, as friends, parents, partners, we try to respond to what our loved ones tell us that is wrong. And as I found with Mr. D, it’s an exercise in frustration as we solve problems that aren’t the problem. It’s like putting a band-aid on the knee that isn’t scraped – a little waste of resources that don’t stop the bleeding.

And finally, because accurately describing the wound is the key to healing, we have to keep unpacking the distractions and figure out what’s wrong. Only then can we hold ourselves and each other for what really hurts and matters. Only then can we find the meaning behind what is happening and as the quote for this post from writer Haruki Murakami suggests, it helps us to bear the pain.

So I left the boots off, turned off the tablet, got him settled in his car seat and we just talked on the way to school. About how sometimes we don’t feel like doing what we have to do and sometimes we just have to look forward to the next thing and it’ll carry us through. He wasn’t convinced but he wasn’t fussing. Then we were able to move forward into the day.

Sorry Your Head Hurts, Do You Want Something to Eat?

I am becoming water; I let everything rinse its grief in me and reflect as much light as I can.” – Mark Nepo

Last night we were having dinner on my brother’s World War II era tugboat. He has lovingly renovated it over more than 20 years so that it’s very comfortable for him and my sister-in-law to live on, but it still has a lot of steel edges to bump into. Which is what happened – my 2-year-old son was looking out a port hole, stood up quickly and bonked his head. My sister-in-law was standing there with me, saw him do it and as I picked him up, showered him with sympathy.

But 30 seconds later (maybe longer but not much), my sister-in-law said to my son, “What’s the matter, Buddy? Are you hungry?”

It struck me as a common thing we do as humans. It’s hard to witness someone else’s pain. So we express sympathy and then we are ready to move on. Three things strike me about this.

First, we often move to trying to solve the problem. I find this impulse, especially as a parent, to be so alluring.

Second, if things last longer than we expect, we try to conflate the pain with something else as my sister-in-law did. Is it not surprising that we grow up confused about what our feelings are if the grown-ups around us think that what is wrong is that we are hungry when really our head hurts?

Third, we compound the original pain with our discomfort at sitting with someone in pain. So that they often are moved to pretend the pain has stopped so that they don’t have to contend with both their own pain and the pain of the people who are witnessing it.

It’s hard but sometimes the best thing to do when someone is in pain, is just sit with them. As a mom, I want to reach for the ice pack, the bandage or the song but I’m working on just letting the tears fall onto my arms as I hold them. We have to clean our wounds before we bandage them and, in a way, letting the injured party cry for as long as necessary is the best first step.

The Deep Story

Our days are happier when we give people a bit of our heart, rather than a piece of our mind.” – unknown

I have a perception problem that caused a disagreement. I adore my brother. I see him as smart, likeable, responsible, resilient and industrious. I also know he has faults and avoids conflicts, will disengage instead of work things out or stand up for himself and has trouble being vulnerable.

We have another family member that sees him as manipulative, irresponsible, underhanded and arrogant.

Generally, we know the same history of my brother with the ups and downs of his life and interpret the story with our own lenses. I see him as the older brother I can always call and she seems him as the schmuck that dated her best friend in junior high.

In this On Being podcast, sociologist and Professor Emeritus Arlie Hochschild talks about the idea of a deep story which she defines as what you feel about a highly salient situation that’s very important to you. A story that explains how we can look at the same set of facts but come up with different conclusions because of the emotions that underlie the story. Her work has been primarily about our political divide – the deep stories of the red states and blue states.

But I see it at work in the stories of my family. It explains why we see things differently and have this perception problem that no amount of facts can solve. It points to the amount and type of work my brother and our family member would have to do in order to rewrite the deep story.

It also predicts that my brother and I will probably always be in accord through the rest of our lives. For me it makes some sense out of the unconditional love and adoration I have always felt and acted on through our many different phases of life.

Finally, it reminds me that the work of empathy for and listening to others is not only necessary for our relationships but also possibly the most transformative. Because even when we don’t agree on the facts, understanding someone else’s deep story at least brings the a-ha moment of understanding.

Are their deep stories in your family? Are there places where facts don’t seem to matter?

(featured photo from Pexels)

Life Banged Me On the Chin

Turn your wounds into wisdom.” – Oprah Winfrey

The other day my 6-year-old daughter and my mom were climbing into my car when my daughter said, “Mom, I hurt my chin.” I scanned the car to see how and she explained that she’d hit it the evening before when she was having an overnight with her aunt and uncle. Then they’d taken her to drama camp, my mom had picked her up so I hadn’t seen her all day and she was reporting something that had happened almost 24 hours prior.

It is unusual that we spend that long apart so of all the things she had to tell me from her many adventures that day, it’s funny that was the one she picked. She didn’t need any extra hug or even an after-the-fact ice pack, she just wanted me to know.

I’ve had to think about it for a couple of weeks to piece together why she told me. Then I happened upon a book about parenting I read a couple of years ago. The Whole-Brained Child by neuropsychiatrist Dr. Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, PhD. In it they explain the different parts of the brain – the logical left part of the brain, the emotional right part of the brain, the upstairs brain, which makes decisions and balances emotions and a downstairs brain that is in charge of automatic processes, innate reactions (fight or flight) and strong feelings (anger and fear).

They explain that the work of parenting is to help kids wire the parts of the brain together. By letting kids tell stories, they wire the words of the left brain to the emotions of the right. And by helping them calm the downstairs brain of fight or flight, we can then engage the upstairs brain to “think” about it.

But I don’t think this is just the work of parents. I think as friends, partners and bloggers, we are continually helping ourselves and others to make sense of experiences. We all need help interpreting, finding perspective, extracting the “lessons learned” from life.

I remember a particular friend in college whose long-time boyfriend had cheated on her and then broken up with her. She told the story over and over again to anyone that would listen. She was trying to figure out why it happened. It was a perfect example of this quote from The Whole-Brained Child, “The drive to understand why things happen to us is so strong that the brain will continue to try making sense of an experience until it succeeds. As parents, we can help this process along through storytelling.”

The reactions from our college-aged friends tended toward the sympathetic “What a jerk.” and “You were better than him anyways.” As momentarily comforting as those were, it wasn’t until someone pointed out that breaking up was always messy but she had faith in other parts of her life and she had to have faith about this too that my friend started to see the bigger picture and heal. Helping her see the mystery of life was just what she needed to become unstuck from the mire of life not being fair.

So we tell our stories to each other and the process hopefully helps us turn our wounds into wisdom. Because sometimes life bangs you on the chin and then you need to understand why it happened and what to learn.

(featured photo from Pexels)

Hot Mess

The good road and the road of difficulties, you have made me cross; and where they cross, the place is holy.” – Black Elk, Oglala Lakota Medicine Man

Yesterday morning I was feeling so optimistic about getting the kids out the door. It was a beautiful spring morning, I’d just had lovely quiet time meditating and writing. Then I got the kids up and I had my two-year-old son changed into his Superman costume for the day and breakfast on the table.

And then with 15 minutes to go we had a potty accident. Trying to recover from that, I didn’t give my 6-year-old daughter the 5 minute warning before she had to turn off her math game and get her shoes on. All of a sudden we were late, Mr. D was having a fit. I think it was mostly because he hadn’t eaten yet but probably a little because he had an accident and although I hadn’t said anything, he was attuned to my stress of being late. Miss O was upset because the pressure was on to get out the door. Our neighbor girl who carpools with us looked a little horrified as our hot mess unfolded.

I could find nothing to help my toddler calm down –  he didn’t want to sing or rock, he was resisting sitting in his car seat, screaming about going to school, there was no way to get him to eat and the pressure was on because we were going to make my daughter and her friend late to school if we didn’t leave NOW. All of a sudden, I went from my usual “it-will-all-work-out” state to being emotionally flooded.

I’ve seen different descriptions of the being flooded – but generally it seems to describe a feeling of strong emotions, release of adrenaline and cortisol in the body. For me it shows up as an inability to be creative and problem solve in the moment because the surge of emotion. I got the kids into the car – my daughter was fine after the initial grump that I was hurrying her – but I just couldn’t wait to drop my son at daycare because I was flummoxed.

After we dropped the girls at the elementary school, I still had no success in calming my son who was really upset. He didn’t want to listen to music or for me to talk. And while I still just wanted to drop him at daycare and make it someone else’s problem, this state was so unusual for my easy-going toddler I just couldn’t. In fact, I knew that not only he needed to calm down and heal from this moment – so did I.

I found myself driving to Home Depot which thankfully had small excavators and backhoes for rent sitting in their parking lot. I parked where he directed me to, scrambled into the back seat to be next to him and his curiosity for the construction equipment took over. Once he started doing something else, I could get him to eat and everything settled from there. We ended up having a lovely time at Home Depot. The great thing about kids is how quickly they heal and move on.

It reminded me how in the moment where we are flooded, doing something else until we can restore our balance is the only thing that works. I’ve heard Drs Julie and John Gottman suggest doing a crossword or going for a walk – anything but continuing a conversation that can’t go anywhere.

I’d say 90+% of the time, my little family operates according to plan and we all do great. But it’s in messy 10% that we find our resilience and healing, figuring it out one Home Depot parking lot at a time.

The Ripple Effect

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou

My dad once made a comment that when he focused on a topic for a sermon, there was a noticeable effect on his life. If he was preaching about parenthood, he’d be a better parent for that week. Likewise about being a better husband, friend or citizen as he focused on those topics.

As I was writing my post for Pointless Overthinking this week, The Art of Apology, I found the same ripple effect in my life. Reading through Dr. Harriet Lerner’s book Why Won’t You Apologize gave me so many great talking points for how to sincerely apologize and it also reminded me of the practice of accepting apologies, especially from kids.

Two points that really resonated with me. The first was not to brush off an apology with a “it’s no problem” when someone, especially a child, has worked up the courage to offer one.

And the second was not to use an apology as a springboard to a lecture. Responding to an apology with something like “Well, I’m glad to hear you apologize for hitting your brother because we don’t do that in this family” is the best way to make kids regret ever offering one.

When we apologize, we help heal the wound however slight for someone else. When we accept an apology, we affirm the courage of someone else to voice their mistakes.

As Dr. Lerner says “We take turns at being the offender and the offended until our very last breath. It’s reassuring to know that we have the possibility to set things, right, or at least know that we have brought our best selves to the task at hand, however the other person responds.”

The other day my 6-year-old daughter was making sticker art for people in her life. One mermaid that she made lost an itty-bitty piece of her tail and my daughter said, “I’m going to give this one to Nana. Because even though I lost the sticker, she’s a great forgiver.”

Isn’t that a great way to be known?

Taking the Crust Off

I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” – Albert Einstein

Around Christmas, my mom was helping my 6-year-old daughter with some Legos. Frustrated by something she tried many times, my mom turned to me and said, “Do they sometimes forget to put pieces in these kits?”

I laughed because I’ve thought that many times. When the instructions don’t work and everything seems to almost but not quite fit and I want to blame the instructions. But from my experience, it has never been the instructions that have been faulty. I’ve usually found an error in previous steps that once reversed, it works fine.

Life has taught me that this just doesn’t happen with Legos. That when life feels blocked, often we spend a lot of energy trying to problem solve where we are at before realizing we go back a few steps to fix what is fundamentally causing the issue. It may be a wound we try to cover over instead of heal or a belief about ourselves, others or life that we never revisit to test if it is true.

Recently I was listening to an On Being podcast where writer Katherine May interviewed author Michael Pollan. He was talking about his research into using psychedelic drugs for therapeutic purposes. One of the benefits he said was “Recovering the profundity that we already know. Like ‘love is everything.’ We spend a lot of time encrusting these fundamental ideas about life and reality with irony and all these protective rhetorical devices to keep them at bay. And suddenly that crust comes off.”

While the chances of me doing a psychedelic trip are about zero, I was struck by the notion of uncovering what we already know. Or in Michael Pollan’s words, taking off the crust. Going back a few steps, in Lego speak.

Praying, meditating, writing, therapy, honest dialogue, vision journaling – all these tools remind me of a mediation retreat but I think they are our ways of discerning where in the directions we went wrong. To somehow reveal that thing that keeps bugging us but we can’t quite put a finger on.

In the On Being interview, Michael Pollan described why insightful experiences, however we come about them, have such power to create long term change in us. He brought up the work of William James who was talking about mystical experiences 100 years ago. Michael Pollan explained, “One of the characteristics of that [mystical experience] besides ego dissolution and transcendence of time and space was the Noetic quality. That is the quality that what you learned, the insights you had were not merely opinions but revealed truth. They have a stickiness and power that I think is central to people being able to change. The difference between knowing in your head and knowing in your heart and whole being.”

When my mom was having trouble with the Legos, I sat down with her (my daughter having wandered off long before) and we looked at the directions, the picture and our pieces. Then my eyes, new to the project, were able to spot the tiny extra red piece that made all the difference. I wouldn’t call it a mystical experience but we whooped with delight at fixing something. When we take off the crust and look inside, especially together, it’s fun to discover how it all works and put it together better.

(featured photo from Pexels)

Secrets

Put your ear down close to your soul and listen hard.” – Anne Sexton

This week when we are returning from holiday breaks always reminds me of one of the wackiest stories from when I was in business with two partners and we had almost 20 employees. On the Monday after New Years Day in 2008, I was in the office when the office manager came in to say that we hadn’t heard from our program manager, JE, since the Christmas party two weeks prior.

JE didn’t work for me but in a small company, I certainly knew him. I liked him too. He was smart, quiet and diligent about getting his work done. He’d left Microsoft six months before to come work for us and except for one scheduled break in late October, he’d always shown up. It wasn’t unusual for our folks to work from home, especially over the holidays but not answering emails and phone calls was definitely odd.

Since my two business partners to whom JE did report were in Mexico on a hang gliding trip, I jumped in to help. Thinking that maybe we could find his girlfriend’s name and call her to check in, I googled his name. The top result was a memo from the United Stated Department of Justice dated in October of the previous year (the same days of his scheduled absence) that read something like this:

“<JE’s full name>, 27, of <city>, WA was sentenced to six month in prison for his role as the leader of a software pirating group. He will be reporting to <low security prison> on January 1, 2008.”

Well, that explained why we couldn’t get ahold of him! When we finally talked with his girlfriend, she said that JE would be disappointed to know we’d found out because he didn’t want to let us down.

Of course, had he quit before he went to prison, we would have never looked for him!! Granted he had bigger things to worry about in the 8 weeks between sentencing and reporting to the facility but as a logical young man, it seemed obvious that if you don’t want people to look for you, you need to break up with them first.

I think of this often when someone is carrying a secret. It is an immense burden that sometimes precludes thinking and acting rationally. And often the secret itself prevents the carrier from finding the tools to heal – because developing any depth is dangerous, lest it unearth the core of what they are carrying. The secret has a life of its own that requires it to stay buried and drains a lot of energy to support itself.

At the time of my life when this happened, I had a secret too. I was unhappy in my marriage and way of life and I was diligently trying to keep that a secret, mostly from myself. I drank too much wine and then smoked cigarettes when I drank as a way to numb myself from feeling what was really going on.

Thinking back now, I realize that I was forcing myself daily to keep walking down a path that didn’t feel right. I was in a relationship that wasn’t supportive of me, I was in a business partnership with a charismatic that was making me crazy and I had developed no spiritual depth with which I could heal these wounds. All these secrets were a prison in their own way.

As it turned out, I kept my misery under wraps for another year after JE went to prison. Then the charismatic business partner told me of my husband’s infidelities and it all blew apart – the business and my marriage. Finally, no one had any secrets left and I could begin to heal. With nothing left buried, it was finally safe to develop some spiritual depth that carried me out of my prison. I can only hope that JE was able to heal once his secret was out as well.

(featured image from Pexels)

The Power of Being

Please remember, it is what you are that heals, not what you know.” – Carl Jung

This weekend I invited a friend who is dealing with a long-term illness to come hang out with us. Her husband called me afterwards to tell me that is exactly what she needs. When I asked what I could do to help, he responded that she just needed more of the same. Time spent just being with little ones.

I love spending time with my kids. But I often get wrapped up in the logistics – preparing food, changing diapers, keeping healthy. So it often surprises me when my friends visit and say, “That was good for my soul.”

There is a lot of mystery in what is good for our souls. But in this context I understand that to mean that being around humans that are so close to the source helps us shed a few layers. When enveloped in activities that have only to do with the fun of the moment, we get to leave behind the news, our plans for becoming something and maybe even our worries.

As I was talking with my friend’s husband, I realized I kept asking what I could do and his consistent response was just to be. It reminded me that isn’t just kids that can be good for our souls. Anyone committed to just showing up with each other and fully being is far more restorative than much of the busy-ness grown-ups often cook up. As Carl Jung says, “Please remember, it is what you are that heals, not what you know.”