Pain and Wisdom

There is pain in every fold, every ridge of this convoluted life. There is pain in each of us, tucked in our own folds or evident on our ridges, in the spaces between our fingers and the dark beneath our eyes.

But because of our separateness, I could be in pain, tearing up inside—and yet you could have no idea about the mayhem going on beneath the unruffled surface you see, beneath that superficial image of me that you hold. This heart, it can be crumpled and bleeding and screaming, and yet it could all be so silent you would hear nothing so much as a light breeze on an otherwise still day. You are enveloped in your own skin, and I in mine. If I choose not to let any of my pain show, I could fool the world.

And so I think I have—I have fooled the world. And this I have done, far too many times.

“When we discover the true lives of other people, the real world beneath the world of appearance, we get as many surprises as on visiting a house of plain exterior which inside is full of hidden treasures, torture-chambers or skeletons.”—Marcel Proust

Among my friends, even the closest of them, I still often hear descriptions of me as unemotional and even stonehearted. I know I should not be surprised to hear such descriptions, because over many years I indeed had built a reputation for seemingly being unaffected by many things, even things for which emotionality is the normal response. Things like loss and betrayal of trust. Things like brokenness in the family.

But to a certain level, I am surprised when I hear my closest friends describe me as that callous. In trying to come to grips with why I now feel this way when in the past I felt pride upon being identified as unemotional, the only explanation I could come up with is that maybe it’s because I am no longer that person. That description of me might have been true in my teen years, when I didn’t know what to do with pain but shove it somewhere nobody could see and even I couldn’t access. That was the time I equated strength with invincibility, and I wanted to be strong. So I had to be invincible, or at least appear to be so.

But that description of me no longer feels true now. At least this is how I feel internally. Externally, though, I may still be projecting an altogether different persona. This may be because I still prefer to deal with my pain alone; I tell people about it (if at all) only when I am already past it. Thus, remnants of that tough warrior-girl who refused to acknowledge feeling any pain may still be present, and may still be the dominant image projected onto the outside world.

Nonetheless, this is what I could tell you—from the inside view, things are different now. I have come to recognize pain and the face-to-face, barehanded grapple with it as necessary conditions for personal growth, the capacity for empathy, and the development of wisdom. No one is truly healed or made a ‘stronger’ person by keeping pain suppressed and unprocessed. I know that now.

“Happiness is good for the body, but it is grief which develops the strengths of the mind.”—Marcel Proust


So yes, these days I do feel, and I dare to feel more than I used to. When I am hurt, I cry, and I let myself cry harder than I used to. It is a challenge I take up almost like an exercise to my ‘emotional fiber’—how much pain can I endure without breaking?

“The moral? To recognize that our best chance of contentment lies in taking up the wisdom offered to us in coded form through our coughs, allergies, social gaffes, and emotional betrayals.”—Alain de Botton

I will go as far as to say, we are made of our struggles, the pains we have endured or are enduring. And this pain, it changes us.


But pain doesn’t change us all in the same way.
Some are built by it. Others are ruined by it.
So while it’s true that pain is inevitable,
how it changes us remains an open question.

The choice is up to us.

If we deal with our pain through self-destructive behaviors (being ‘bad sufferers’, in Alain de Botton’s words), then we stand to lose the chance of gaining from it wisdom we paid so dearly for.

But if we have the courage, patience, and self-compassion to process and ‘decode’ our pain—even as it hurts even more to do so—such that our suffering becomes something meaningful, then maybe we can emerge from it wiser than before.

After all, to paraphrase Alain de Botton, pain is wisdom in coded form. ♠

“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”—Mary Oliver

“There is no man, however wise, who has not at some period of his youth said things, or even lived in a way which was so unpleasant to him in later life that he would gladly, if he could, expunge it from his memory. But he shouldn’t regret this entirely, because he cannot be certain that he has indeed become a wise man – so far as any of us can be wise – unless he has passed through all the fatuous or unwholesome incarnations by which that ultimate stage must be reached. I know there are young people… whose teachers have instilled in them a nobility of mind and moral refinement from the very beginning of their schooldays. They perhaps have nothing to retract when they look back upon their lives; they can, if they choose, publish a signed account of everything they have ever said or done; but they are poor creatures, feeble descendants of doctrinaires, and their wisdom is negative and sterile. We cannot be taught wisdom, we have to discover it for ourselves by a journey which no one can undertake for us, an effort which no one can spare us.”—Marcel Proust

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