How Pain Can Provide a Path to Possibility and Purpose

Sugar coating pain is easy, but it ends up hurting us more.

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In a recent post, I wrote about Winston Churchill’s three leadership (and life) lessons:

  • Don’t sugar coat
  • Apply cautious optimism
  • Engage with purpose and meaning

Those lessons are really sticking with me lately. I suspect it’s because Churchill’s lessons emerged at a time of tremendous urgency, challenge, and transformation, much like today, and the last many days. They came at a time when things looked particularly bleak during the early days of World War II. Right now, we find ourselves in turbulent and challenging times. The world is at war with a novel virus, and the United States is roiling in the face of racism. We are in uncharted territory where, just like Churchill’s era, there is great pain and suffering, but also great possibility, being held and driven by purpose and meaning. A question I’m asking myself a lot lately is: “Can I, and can we, meet the moment? Can we turn towards the pain, envision and work for what’s possible, and be guided by the underlying depth of purpose and meaning?”

Sugar coating pain is easy, but it ends up hurting us more

Is pain due to events or systems? Is it personal or cultural? A practice of not sugar coating is to answer yes, and yes. Right now we have access to horrific events and it can feel very personal. It’s hard not to turn away. The first time I witnessed George Floyd’s killing, I kept flinching and squirming. I couldn’t believe the amount of time, the dismissive attitudes, and the lack of intervention. Event, event, event; so many events. Not sugar coating, not turning away is really hard.

Experiencing heinous events and taking them personally feels important but isn’t enough. We also need to allow ourselves to see the systems, the cultures, attitudes, assumptions, and social contracts. This is really hard. It takes lots of listening, reading, and shedding our most embedded and perhaps even dearly held beliefs. Lots of listening, questioning, doubting, and speaking out – with a fierce kindness and compassion for ourselves, and others.

Of course, I’m writing as a white man, and can’t possibly know the perspective of a person of color. What I do know for me is when it comes to race, equality, and inclusion, if I’m not feeling uncomfortable, I’m not doing the work.

Apply cautious optimism while welcoming possibility

I keep returning to my favorite quote by writer Wendell Berry: “Be joyful, though you’ve considered all the facts.” Perhaps right now, when joy feels so difficult to drum up, we can try to be optimistic, while considering all the facts.

This is one of the primal paradoxes of our lives – feeling the pain, the harsh realities, without being consumed by them, so we stay open to what’s possible.  Acknowledging what is, while allowing ourselves to experience the pain of any given situation, can be a potent doorway to understanding and deep insight, thereby creating new possibilities for connection, and for solutions on both personal and systemic levels.

Engage this time with meaning and purpose

I also continue to reflect on a statement from Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki where he says “Our life can be seen as a crossing of a river. The goal of our life’s effort is to reach the other shore, Nirvana. The true wisdom of life, is that in each step of the way, the other shore is actually reached.” Nirvana is a way of being where we are not caught by desire and suffering, where we are not caught or limited by our usual ideas of birth and death.

The first part of the statement, about the purpose of our lives being to cross the river, is much like Churchill’s first directive of no sugar coating. It’s the practice of seeing what is, of acknowledging our pain, confusion, and tight spots. It’s the practice of seeing where we and our systems need to change. The second part about “the true wisdom of life” is much like the practice of meditation. It’s the practice of cultivating the body (our bodies) of radical acceptance of ourselves and the world, just as they are. Paradoxically, this radical acceptance allows us to open our hearts and minds to the possibility of profound personal and systemic change. Real change is at the heart of what it means to be human. With each change we learn and we re-create ourselves, and by extension, our world.

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