“We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey.” ~Kenji Miyazawa
I used to run from pain.
My father died suddenly when I was six. For years I stuffed it down, never letting anyone know my emotions, how I was feeling, and I ran from situations that could cause me to lose, to feel pain.
My heart would jump and feel fear every time I received a “bad” email from a boss, or bad news. I only wanted to feel good things. I stayed out of relationships for fear of the eventual loss and bad feelings, not realizing that I was missing out on all the beauty in between.
A year ago, my journey to feeling pain began. I had decided a few months before that I would open myself up to a relationship. I was ready to see what was out there. I was ready to feel, whatever it was. I met an amazing guy, and I thought he was the weirdest but most fascinating and beautiful person I’d met in a while.
There was lots of love and tenderness between us. I think we were very similar, and both subconsciously wanted ours to be a beautiful, painless relationship. We were precious with the time we spent together, and never fought.
The first pain between us came after a few months. I wanted to know where this relationship was “going.” I wanted him to be my boyfriend, officially.
He told me he felt almost everything for me—intellectual stimulation, passion—but not an emotional connection. He wanted our relationship to continue on as it was: seeing each other three or four times a week, no expectations of what this was or would be.
Our relationship was already beautiful, why did that need to change? We committed to only see each other without calling each other boyfriend and girlfriend.
As time went on, I stuffed down all of my doubts about our relationship. I pushed away the full days that for some unknowable reason I wanted to end it. (I had no solid explanation, but a feeling.)
I ignored the red flags of someone who was just not ready to commit. I ignored my heart telling me that this wasn’t the kind of relationship I really wanted. But I continued on as before, making the moments we had together as happy and as beautiful and as magical as I could, and he did too.
Until right before I was leaving for a weeklong work trip. He asked me out of the blue what I thought about seeing other people. Valentine’s Day had been a week before, and I had seen no signs of him feelings this way. He had gifted me with a small figurine of an elephant carved inside a latticed egg, because he knew I loved elephants.
I felt sharp pain, and shock. We were walking my dog, and I walked away from him and was silent until we made it back up to my apartment. “Lauren,” he said. “I just want to talk to you.” Please just let me do that, his eyes said.
So we did, we talked: He told me how in the past he’d had relationship doubts and hadn’t expressed them, and how he felt that relationship had gone on without him. The next morning gave no conclusion, but we were tender with each other and he whispered, “I’ll miss you,” before he walked down the subway stairs to work.
When I returned a week later, he picked me up at the airport, and when we got back to my apartment, he coldly told me he couldn’t sleep over: He wanted to be emotionally open to other people.
My heart broke. I cried and made him stay the night. And I was a wreck the whole next day. But something in me felt freed, something in me felt that this was the best thing that had ever happened to me.
I had been so afraid to tell him how I felt, to tell him my own doubts and insecurities about how he made me feel, that I just didn’t tell him. Crying and feeling the emotional hurt of the split was incredibly painful, but was the truest and most raw emotion I’d felt in months.
When I looked at the elephant figurine he had given me, I realized that it wasn’t beautiful; it was trapped inside a structure of its own making.
The fear that was holding me back had come true: that we could break up. But it happened, I felt it, and I was still there, still very much myself.
Two weeks later, I found out my beloved dog Bella had cancer, and a week later, I had to do one of the hardest things I’ve had to do—take her to the vet and put her to sleep.
Even as her body broke down, her spirit stayed strong: At the vet, I left her on a friend’s lap and briefly left the room, and when I returned, she tried to jump into my arms.
Two of my closest friends were with me in the room, and after it happened we just hugged each other and cried. It felt strangely good and freeing to be able to cry together with someone, to feel pain together.
A part of me thought that the loss of my relationship was just preparing me for this loss.
Through all of this, my older brother had been fighting cancer.
He was diagnosed almost three and a half years ago, and had fought it with his life ever since. In between chemo and radiation, he surfed, traveled, coached his kids’ soccer teams, and was an inspiration to all who knew him.
A month ago, he needed an emergency visit to the hospital: He had fluid in his lungs and spent five days with a nurse visiting his home to drain them. I went home to see him and he was thin, carrying an oxygen tank around with him, but his spirits were high.
He was happy to see me. I told him about a recent trip to Turkey, about Bella, about my relationship. He listened to my pain and gave me advice.
A couple months back, he succumbed to his disease, surrounded by his wife and two children. At his funeral the priest, who knew him well, recounted how my brother told him that the past three years had been some of the happiest of his life.
I know my brother felt great pain, physically and emotionally, and he hid it from most of us. But he pushed through it to give his wife and daughters as much of himself as he could.
And now I’m in so much pain that it all runs together, the relationship, my dog, my brother—I don’t know what to feel first. But the strangest thing is that it is the most alive I’ve felt in years, to allow myself to just feel all that I am feeling, and not judge it, or push it away.
Allow yourself to feel pain, to sit with it. To build relationships that you may one day lose, for whatever reason.
Holding pain will be hardest thing you do. Feeling pain is the bravest fight you will fight. Running, avoidance, fear in whatever form, it all brings you further away from being a full, feeling person.
Pain is clarifying, cleansing. True.
You feel this pain because you loved so hard, because you felt so hard.
Walk bravely through pain’s cleansing fire, although it scares you, although it burns so bright that you walk in knowing it will hurt. You will come out on the other side stronger and more complete.
I don’t know what your pain is. We all hold it, some pain, inside of us; we carry it with us. And that’s fine, it really is.
There is a beauty in pain that that even happiness cannot touch, because you risked, you loved, you let yourself feel. Pain will be the thing that brings you to yourself, before and after pain—before, there is happiness, after, there is transcendence.
Pain is a part of your experience, not something to run from, to escape. Pain will find you somehow, and to go through its cleansing fire will be one of the truest things that can happen to you in your life, if you let it.
Photo by Brandon Zierer