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How Pain Can Guide Us and Make Us Whole

 “Life’s challenges are not supposed to paralyze you, they’re supposed to help you discover who you are.” ~Bernice Johnson Reagon

We all internalize our suffering to one extent or another. Some of us instinctively take it to a point where it manifests as various physical aches and pains. When I was little, my body learned to carry the burden of the pain that was too big for my heart.

In some ways, it’s served me very well. It let me compartmentalize enough to function beautifully in certain areas. I have an Ivy League education, many work accolades, and all that jazz.

But oh, the cost to my dear body has been high. I’ve had chronic pain since I was 16, which has amplified over the years into to difficulty walking, standing, heck, even sitting. I’m physically limited in where I can go, what I can do, and how much energy I have on a daily basis.

It has been a tremendous price to pay, and I have been so resentful of my body for the life experiences I’ve missed out on.

I’m in my 30s, and there are 70 year olds who can dance circles around me. It has only been lately that it’s dawned on me how grateful I am for the sacrifice that I unknowingly made. I got through what I needed to, and it’s gotten me to a place where I have the safety to stop, lay my burdens down, and heal.

Separating from my pain and storing it in my body allowed me a container to put everything I wasn’t able to consciously hold. It also provided a buffer to keep my life experiences from damaging my soul, my faith in humanity, and my spirit. That is exactly what I needed way back then.

I don’t need it anymore. 

I have been blessed with the time, energy, and resources to find people who can gently and lovingly support me on a path to wholeness. And I am grateful for the pain, because it calls me home. It reminds me that I have unfinished business.

It is an ever-present reminder that if I want to be whole, I need to go back and grieve the old hurts and reclaim my soul. There is no way for me to live in a real sense if I’m separated into parts that are boxed up off in storage.

As put so eloquently by Alice Miller:

“The truth about our childhood is stored up in our body, and although we can repress it we can never alter it. Our intellect can be deceived, our feelings manipulated, our perceptions confused, and our body tricked with medication.* But someday the body will present its bill, for it is as incorruptible as a child who, still whole in spirit, will accept no compromises or excuses, and it will not stop tormenting us until we stop evading the truth.”

For many people with chronic pain, including myself, the pain is our body’s way of calling us back to make peace and find forgiveness, acceptance, and healing. And yet how easy, seductive, and culturally accepted it is to take a pill, grab a pint or two of Ben and Jerry’s, numb out on the intertubes, or medicate in some way and keep that fire-breathing dragon in its box.

As Rilke puts it, “Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love….”

I want to be free. I want to come home. I know in my heart that it is not only possible, but it is my life’s mission.

I know that making peace with those dragons doesn’t mean they will magically disappear in a puff of smoke. It’s not a deal I’m making so that my body will be cured or that I will be miraculously spring up and run a 5K.

Healing and closure are simply necessary to fully live. Healing and curing are parallel but independent. We can always heal, and a physical cure is sometimes a beautiful bonus.

The key is remembering my intentions. I’ve played with these over the years, and if this is something that speaks to you, I’d encourage you to experiment with variations on these themes:

  • To greet the pain as a valued messenger and visitor, and an honored guest. It’s to see the pain as a meditation bell and a call to practice.
  • To see pain as a “check engine” light going off and a sign that further inquiry is needed.
    • Am I hungry?
    • Am I tired?
    • Do I need more time or space?
    • Is there something else I need to include or eliminate from my life?
  • To set a “lunch date” with the pain (or inviting Mara to tea). Sometimes logistics prevent immediately pausing and listening. If my leg starts hurting on the Beltway, it’s neither safe nor wise to pull over and meditate. However, making a commitment to set aside time and space for the pain to come chat in the next 24 hours is key. It’s like telling the screaming toddler that you hear, that you care, and that you will listen as soon as you can. Honoring that time is vital.
  • To give the pain tools to express what lies behind it. That may be done through journaling, drawing or painting, therapy, dance, or even screaming.
  • To have compassion for the times we inevitably resist self-care. 
  • To set aside time to find joy in where you are, each day.

For me, the art is in remembering that the pain is a love song from my soul. It’s not punishment, but rather a gift perfectly designed to show me the way back home.

I also understand that if I have the courage to come home, that simple act is enough to ripple out to those I love, and truly, to all of humankind and beyond. 

I believe it is the sweetest of gifts that we all can offer.

“Your legs will get heavy and tired. Then comes a moment of feeling the wings you’ve grown, lifting”. ~Rumi

*Please note: While I love the Alice Miller quote in the middle of this post, it is neither my place nor intention to cast judgment on others’ decisions to use medications.

Photo by AlicePopkorn

About Cheryl Harris

Cheryl Harris is a dietitian & nutritionist, health coach, Celiac advocate, G-free cook, baker, speaker, writer & eater. Also a garden & meditation enthusiast, and a proud kitty mama. Visit her at www.gfgoodness.com and on Twitter @CherylHarrisRD.

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