"Why can’t I just keep using the training wheels?" I ask defiantly.
"Because life doesn’t have training wheels."
The sun was beating on my five year old forehead and my little black cotton shorts were soaked through. All I really wanted to do was go inside and drink some lemonade. I knew my sister wouldn’t let me do so until I at least attempted the seemingly psychotic death ploy that was bicycle riding with two wheels.
I gave up arguing. With my best pouty face to boot, I mounted the bike and started pedaling.
I came down quicker than a John Wayne holster draw. My knobby knees were scraped and began oozing a bright red. There was the hot pulse of physical pain, then the even hotter flash of shame that I somehow failed on a basic level. The second pain hurt more. I was all ready to give up (pain has a way of doing that), but my sister shot me a ‘Is that the best you got?’ glance.
Suddenly I wanted to prove her wrong. Or maybe I wanted to prove to myself I had what it takes. Whichever it was, and in spite of the pain, I gritted my teeth and got back on the bike.
It is a truth universally recognized that all humans experience suffering. It’s Newton’s Fourth Law that never reached the presses. Pain may come as a consequence of our own poor decisions. Other times, pain is the solicitor who arrives at our doorstep uninvited. Chronic physical pain that comes out of nowhere, relational pain, pain of financial reversals -- all of these are a loss of something: our freedom, our future, our health, our happiness. Just by nature of engaging with the world and those in it you open the door to suffering. It cannot be avoided.
If pain is not to be avoided, you’d think by now we’d be really good at the healing. Wrong! It’s shocking how people run from pain, are surprised when it happens, and then have no game plan on how to deal with it. So the question stands: how does one heal?
The socially acceptable answer to this question is: time will heal. Phrases like ‘give it time’ or ‘time with heal’ have always bugged me. The concept that time heals is ludicrous, given the examples in real-life that prove otherwise. We’ve all met that middle aged man who is bitter, selfish, jaded. Nothing is satisfactory to him and every utterance that leaves his lips is a criticism. He has that ‘get off my lawn!’ quality about him. You can tell he got really hurt a year ago, two years ago, a decade ago, heck maybe even in his childhood, and still has not moved on. He sees every encounter and person through the lens of his pain. He might as well have a I’m-Wounded-Stay-Away sign plastered all over him. While he is 10 years removed from his suffering, it’s as fresh as if it happened yesterday. Time has not healed this man. How incredibly sad and unbearably tragic. What a waste of a life. This is just one example, but there are countless others that come to mind. Time does not heal.
Okay MaryBeth, if time doesn’t heal, what does?
What you think about yourself says more about you than your choices, your past, and your circumstances combined. Mindset is what heals, transforms, and redeems. Have you ever met someone who, on paper, had things that would disqualify them from being in your life, but when you met them it became no big deal at all? All of a sudden the circumstance became very small because the way they thought about the circumstance was so attractive. You see? Mindset.
There are certain ways of thinking that will get you through the deepest of valleys. I was told by a friend recently that I have a PhD in pain. The hilarity of this statement is rivaled only by its truth. I’ve experienced every gradation of pain you can imagine - physical, relational, financial, emotional. As rewarding as my life has been, I can’t deny the fact that it’s been hard. When you’re on suffering’s frequent flyer plan, you have to get really good at healing.
I present to you today my choice jewels: the mindsets that have helped me heal. They don’t come free of charge; I paid the price. It is my hope that you use them well and that you find the healing and freedom you desire. It is also my hope that you are willing to let go of the pain, because sometimes we are surprised to find we like the hurt more than the healing.
1. No feeling is taboo.
All the feels. There are no ‘wrong’ feelings during the healing process. Anger, sorrow, anguish, grief, relief, longing, fear, resentment, malaise, excitement. Give yourself permission to feel it all. Grieve the lost years. Weep for the betrayal. Fear that things may not get better; hope that they will. Mourn not what it could have been but that it wasn’t what you thought it was. Marvel that you got through it. Anticipate what the future brings. Reflect on the bittersweet moments. It’s important to fully feel everything. Stifling emotions will stifle your healing. We often think that feeling certain emotions makes us weak. That is total bs. It means we are human beings with a heart that feels. It means we’re strong enough to be vulnerable and wade into that which is messy and wild and unpredictable. Don’t buy into that lie, and instead, grab onto this: If we never fully face our pain and the emotional fallout that comes with it, we hijack our healing. Be kind to yourself and give yourself space to feel all the feelings.
2. Pain isn’t permanent but the reward is.
When you’re in the middle of pain, it feels like it will never end. The light at the end of the tunnel seems mythical. I vividly remember an interaction five years ago that elucidated this point. I had been going through a long season of chronic, physical pain. Every day I woke up with what felt like a sinus infection. It was hard to work, go out, and even function on a basic human level. I went from doctor to doctor, like a sick game of hot potato. No answers, no root cause, no remedy. The unrelenting pain was only exceeded by my loss of hope that I’d ever get better, that I’d ever have a normal life again. It hurt to hope, maybe even more than the hurt itself. I remember sharing this sentiment with someone, a middle-aged woman that I had gotten to know over the past few months. She looked me in the eye and said "It will get better." I felt like clubbing her across the face. "You don’t know that! This torment will be eternal!" (I raged, silently).
The next thing she said almost knocked me off my feet. "Pay attention to who you’re becoming in the process." Bingo. I began to see the light. I was so focused on my pain that I was missing out on how it was shaping me in the process. The pain was building in me grit, perseverance, follow-through, dedication, and most of all, humility. The most precious and noble of human traits can only be forged in the fire of pain. Have you ever met someone who has overcome deep adversity? They shine so brightly you can barely look into their face.
It is through suffering - not success - that we develop the marks of resilience. Our values are tested, our character deepens, and all the nonsense fades away. If you’re going through pain, remember this: pain has a reward. And it’s not some dinky trophy you put on a mantle, it's the strong, victorious person you carry with you every day. No elite university can mold your character quite like the school of pain.
3. Nothing is wasted.
Because pain has a reward, nothing is wasted. Oh, humanity. If I could plaster this sentiment on every billboard, every Facebook add, every airwave I would: Pain has a purpose. It is valuable, it is rich. It challenges us, edifies us, refines us. Pain isn’t a feeling to be avoided, it’s an experience to be embraced.
One of the hardest human emotions to grapple with is regret. ‘If I had done things differently, I wouldn't be in so much pain, I would have gotten what I wanted, I would have a better life right now.’ Hogwash. Regret, in this instance, is short-sighted and cowardly: short-sighted because it ignores who you became in the process and cowardly because it keeps you mentally stuck in the past instead of taking the necessary steps to propel your life forward. The next time you regret an action that brought pain, remember, nothing in your past is wasted. Which brings me to the last mindset..
4. There is agency in the meaning.
Most people think life is a biography, but it’s more a choose-your-own-adventure. Life isn’t linear, it’s a cyclical spiral. Just because something happened to you in your ‘timeline’ doesn’t mean you can’t go back and revisit it. And revisit it you must to reframe it, to decide what meaning to give it, to determine what lessons you will extract. Therein lies the beauty. Even though something happened to you in the past, determining how you will interpret it gives you agency in the present - wonderful, empowering, agency. In this way, your past is not fixed, it’s malleable. You decide what the pain means, not the perpetrator or the circumstance. You look back on it, evaluate it, and carry the lesson forward into your present. Don’t you see? This makes you impervious to pain’s sting. ‘No weapon forged against you shall prevail.’ Indeed. If you control the narrative, no supporting actor can undermine your story.
It’s a warm, summer evening in the neighborhood. The sun is setting to the symphony of crickets chirping. I had just come home from a long day at the office. I rush inside - not to eat or turn on the TV - but to change into shorts and a tee and hit the garage.
I pull out my red bike and start riding through the streets to the forest preserve. As I pedal faster, the wind casually picks up my hair and grazes my face, like a sweet serenade. I have a date with the universe tonight. As I turn the corner I lift my hands up and tilt my head back. I feel so free.
In my mind’s eye I look back at my five year old self. I thank her for not giving up. She fell down over and over again. She scraped her knee more times than there are decimals in pi. I thank her for getting back up again. I thank her for giving me my best shot.
Now that particular pain is a distant memory. This sensuous summer night is all reward.
Thank you, life, for the valleys, because gosh it’s all mountain now.
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