All right, I’m a crybaby. When I started this post in July 2011, I thought I was an expert on pain & misery, having gone through many painful losses, humiliations, beatings, traffic accidents, injuries, medical conditions, and dental procedures. However nothing prepared me for the last three weeks of my life. On October 31, I underwent surgery to have Prolene mesh installed for three hernias in my lower abdomen. They used general anaesthesia (Propophol), and sent me home as soon as I was ambulatory. And when the Propophol wore off….
The. Pain. Was. Epic. Whether I was standing, sitting, lying down, or half-reclining, every movement caused an intense stabbing sensation. I felt like Julius Caesar in his final moments. And the pain was not the worst part. I can’t talk about the worst part. Not even now.
But I survived. Now, as I sit at my computer on November 19 to finish this post, I feel not only better than I did the day after surgery, I actually feel better than I did the day BEFORE surgery. No doubt that’s in part because I’ve gotten a lot of rest. But I think there’s other reasons, which are the point of this blog: the uses of pain & misery.
I. The first eighteen years of my life were, well, painful and miserable. Since then, things have just kept betting better, to the point where now, I’m actually pretty happy most of the time, and I think that is in large part because I appreciate happiness much, much more, because of my past misery.
So. The first use of misery: APPRECIATION. Just as I appreciate feeling a little better right now after three weeks of intense suffering, I appreciate my current life much more (even though it, too, has its share of misery) BECAUSE I had such a miserable childhood and adolescence.
My wife (who is a big part of the reason my current life is pretty happy) had an analogous experience. She grew up in Communist China, and she hated it. Now she’s here. And she’s happy. And she appreciates it. Why? Because the first thirty or so years of her life in China were so miserable. These days, for my wife, every day that she is NOT in China is a good day. And that’s every day. Knock on wood.
So. To review. The first use of misery is APPRECIATION.
II. OK, what else? Well, pain and misery also offer INCENTIVE FOR CHANGE. When individuals suffer enough, they are motivated to change something. Diet. Exercise routine. Relationships. Job. Neighborhood. Attitude. Behavioral patterns.
In my case, chest pains in the early 1990s alerted me that my blood pressure was dangerously high. In response, for the first time in my life, I began exercising aerobically (power walking, hiking, swimming and bicycling). As a result, I have actually been healthier since I started having chest pains. Changing my behavior was the key.
In the early 2000s, I injured a cervical disc in a fall while hiking. Now, that was painful. The pinched nerve made my arm feel like it was being sliced from the inside by a hot butter knife. But. On the advice of my doctor, to strengthen my back muscles and relieve pressure on the pinched nerve, I started upper-body physical therapy that has continued more or less to this day. As a result, I have actually had better posture and upper-body strength since I fell. Once again, the key was a change in my behavior.
More generally, I can say that for much of my life, I have tended to suffer from depression and anxiety. Starting in 1971, I began eating healthier and practicing yoga and Transcendental Meditation. Those three behavioral changes have been key to a healthier, happier life. People sometimes tell me I look younger than my age. People ask me, “John, how come you’re always so happy?” Well, talk to me on a day when I’ve been too busy to meditate, do yoga, or eat properly, and see how happy I am!
One personal demon all my life has been a feeling of powerlessness, which also affects billions of people around the world. To overcome my own feelings of powerlessness, I got involved in the teachers’ union, which has taught me that we can make a difference and we can get respect, but we need to stand up, show courage, and work tirelessly together.
Groups and nations can also take a lesson here. If your group or nation are suffering, maybe it’s time for corrective action. History teaches again and again: 1. that social change and political change almost always come from some kind of suffering or frustration; and 2. that causing change can also be painful and frustrating; but in the long run 3. the pain and suffering are far less if the abused, the oppressed, the disenfranchized and the disempowered unite to overcome the forces of oppression and injustice and stop the abuse. (As long as they themselves don’t become abusive and oppressive, as many Communist governments turned out to be. Ask my wife.)
BUT. Corrective action is key. So. To review again. A second use of misery (and, in my view, the main one) is INCENTIVE FOR CHANGE.
III. The third use of misery? A spiritual lesson. Physical discomfort reminds us: OUR BODIES ARE TEMPORARY. This body that has given me so much pain and pleasure will surely give up the ghost some day. We are, after all, spiritual beings having temporary experiences in physical bodies. That’s an important perspective to have in mind all the time, but when we’re in a lot of pain, it’s easier to remember that.
How does it serve us to remember that this physical life is temporary? Well, for one thing, we can stop taking everything quite so seriously, lighten up a little, relax, enjoy, and have a good laugh, because all of this is temporary anyway.
IV. The fourth use of misery? You see it before you: CREATIVITY. Suffering can drive us to creative pursuits such as blogging, making music, drawing, cooking, etc., to get our mind off the misery. That’s sure as hell what I’m doing now. Comedy brings pain into especially sharp focus, and pain makes comedy almost a necessity. Isn’t laughter the best medicine? Many jokes come from somebody else’s suffering, but I think it’s fair to say that most creators of comedy have suffered greatly themselves.
V. Another great lesson from pain and suffering is COMPASSION. As I believe Romeo says in Act II, Scene 2 of Romeo & Juliet, ” He jests at scars that never felt a wound.” If we have never suffered, how can we empathize with those who do? And without empathy, what kind of world will this become?
A big problem in the increasingly stratified, economically imbalanced U.S. society is that the upper classes, whose children have in many cases never had to suffer — or even wait for things they wanted — have little or no compassion for those born and raised in great need, hardship, humiliation and abuse. Admittedly, even the rich can suffer, BUT… let’s be honest, they tend to suffer far less than the poor and the shrinking middle classes, and compassion comes hard for those who have never suffered.
VI. A sixth use of misery is BUILDING CHARACTER. This might be an old cliche, but when you endure a period of suffering and misery with patience and good humor, I think you’re a better person — a person of more durable character.
VII. Finally, my recent encounter with post-operative pain & misery has taught me one of the most important lessons of my life. My wife has been a tireless source of help and support during this time, even taking time off work during a hellishly busy and difficult time at her office to help me during my recovery from surgery. The lesson is: We all need each other. And we don’t realize that until the chips are down. Hard times can bring us closer together. If we don’t let the pain and misery turn us into monsters.
In future postings, I might offer some suggestions for simple daily routines and attitudes that contribute greatly to a baseline of good health and happiness. Let me know if you are interested, by leaving a comment.
Until then… chin up, and soldier on, keeping in mind this wonderful quote from Maya Angelou:
“I’ve learned that no matter what happens, or how bad it seems today, life does go on, and it will be better tomorrow…. I’ve learned that life sometimes gives you a second chance…. I’ve learned that whenever I decide something with an open heart, I usually make the right decision. I’ve learned that even when I have pains, I don’t have to be one. I’ve learned that every day you should reach out and touch someone…. I’ve learned that I still have a lot to learn.”