Life is painful. And pain changes you.
They say the hard times in your life change you more than the good times, and I have found that to be inexplicably true, both in my own life and in the lives of the people I love.
In the relatively low number of times I have traveled around the sun, I’ve borne witness to my fair share of reprehensible and unjustifiable tragedy. I’ve helplessly watched it strike around me like lightning, and I’ve seen the universally unique way its victims have dealt with it. And in my own life, I’ve had more encounters with betrayal, loss and sorrow than I certainly would have chosen for myself. So I know, undoubtedly, that pain can not only change you, but take from you.
It can rob you of the human qualities you are not only entitled to but need to sustain a happy and fulfilled life. This can happen without you even noticing.
It’s a slow burn, a deadly cocktail of grief and cynicism that eventually boils over in the beaker that represents the vessel of your precious heart, like a chemical experiment gone wrong.
There are choices you make along the way, conscious decisions you need to commit to for insight preservation during your journey of healing to eventual normalcy. These are the five things I have watched pain take from others, and I have fought for myself. They’re elements I have seen people who have encountered immense hardship claw their way back to when they found themselves falling away. They’re the five components of the human experience that nothing, nothing, should ever take from you.
And this post is dedicated to the people I know, love, respect and desperately admire, who have managed to keep these parts of their soul intact in the face of horrific adversity. You are my living heroes and true inspirations in life.
This may be the number one thing that pain and devastation can take from you, and yet it is still the most important quality to fight with every fiber of your being for preservation in your heart.
When something downright horrible happens to you, like losing a parent, child, best friend or spouse, you move into a different category of understanding hardship and grief. You all of a sudden, in an absolute instant, know more gut-wrenching pain than 90% of the people in your life. You know it. They know it. Everyone knows it. It’s a complete shift in the equilibrium of the way you comprehend pain as it relates to the community around you.
Maintaining empathy for seemingly smaller offenses and hardships in the lives of others can be incredibly difficult after what you have been through. But if you lose empathy, its absence will corrode your heart from the inside out like deadly acid. It will turn you cold, bitter, angry and maybe even cruel. I’ve seen it happen, and it’s an affliction that takes a long time to recover from, for everyone involved.
The truth is that it’s no one’s fault that you went through a harrowing experience, especially not the humans who love you, as they try their absolute best to support you. But they’re people too, with unique experiences. They are still allowed to be sad and afraid of things that don’t amount to the horror you came face-to-face with. Your best friend can still be sad about their dog passing away when you once lost a parent. Your co-worker can still be stressed about problems at work when you’re facing a separation from your spouse at home. Your little sister can still be heartbroken over a short-term breakup when you have a child that’s suffering from a disability. No one person can determine the threshold for validity when it comes to pain. We all have it and in different ways. The most we can do is try to be there for each other, no matter what.
You don’t start out struggling with empathy. I’m a strong believer that it’s more natural than we think. Cats and dogs express it. We embraced it wholeheartedly as children. It was easy to see someone in pain and feel for them until life hardened us. Fight that. Keep your heart open and tender. Not just for others, but for yourself. Don’t permit life to take something that enables true connection and love on a deep, profound and fulfilling level. Empathy is reciprocal sustenance for the soul. You need it, always.
The ability we have to trust in the future and in the positive experiences we have yet to encounter gets worn thin like a tethered piece of thread when we are faced with extreme pain. The beliefs you once relied on, reveled in and entrusted in, become challenged at their core, and sometimes even obsolete. It’s hard to have faith in the future, what you cannot see and hold tangibly within your hands, when you know all too well what it’s like to be faced with real, touchable pain in the present.
But you must cling to your faith. Whether that’s with a creator, or with your set of values and perfectly tuned notes of optimism. Whatever it is that once kept you going, that gave your soul meaning and your restless heart comfort, hold on to it with all you have. Keep it during times of darkness. Let it be your light. Don’t let the good escape you when the bad creeps into the corners of your mind like a plague. It isn’t naive or foolish to believe that life can and will get better, it’s strong. There isn’t solace in giving up and letting the darkness take you, there is only more darkness.
3. Vulnerable and True Connections.
After you have been hurt, abandoned and disappointed, it’s hard to be open to the idea of demonstrating vulnerability and an authentic state of self to others. You want to board up your walls, not to be penetrated by anyone or anything ever again. The very concept of doing so is absolutely terrifying. I understand that. It’s normal and natural.
It’s also difficult to seek true connections with others when you loved someone very deeply and lost them. The fear of encountering that amount of grief and loss again is paralyzing, and it makes you want to avoid any new instances where you may put yourself at risk of being devastated once more.
But the only experiences and connections worth having in this world require a certain amount of risk and vulnerability. Otherwise, they are only surface-level. They are shallow. They are easy to leave, easy to part with. If something is easy to walk away from, it’s only fulfilling a small portion of your heart. And in order for you to feel that true enrichment, you have to show your true self, knowing at your core that you still may get abandoned, rejected or devastated anyway; knowing that you may lose them too. It’s a risk we all take loving others in a life that is only temporary, and sometimes it’s the only risk worth taking. You must allow your strength and bravery to be channeled into it, and plunge into the unknown.
4. Simple Joys.
When the most devastating and dark parts of life confront you, it’s unthinkable to assign importance to the little things in life that once brought you joy. How can you possible rejoice about raspberry pie, a Sunday football game or a thick novel when something so difficult has happened in your world? How can those things matter anymore? How can they ever give you happiness like they once did?
You’ll think these things a lot. They are inherent, a side effect that accompanies any amount of pain. Sadness makes you question joy, especially that which derives from simplicity. It’s normal to wonder how tiny drops of happiness could ever overcome a tidal wave of pain. But I am here to remind you that it can, because those little drops of joy add up to who you are and what you live for. Though they seem small, they are mighty, and collectively they have the power to overcome even the tidal wave of anguish you have withstood. Don’t devalue those hobbies, interests, and passions. They’re yours. They are more powerful than you may think. They can carry you through so many hard times in life if you allow them to.
I realize this is vague, but that’s intentional, being ‘yourself’ is entirely what you want it to be.
For me, pain and heartbreak have at times threatened a few parts of myself that I favor. My idealism, my inclination to seek the best in others, my ability to wear my heart on my sleeve, my expressiveness, my openness to new relationships and my fearlessness. I’ve had to fight to maintain those qualities, despite the natural push to abandon them after something very disheartening happened to me or around me. It’s not easy. I realize that, and as I started out saying at the beginning of this piece, pain will always change us in some ways. The hardest part is understanding which pieces of yourself you aren’t willing to part with, because they make you who you are. Those are the components of yourself that you go to freaking war for when pain tries to rip them away and throw them into the pit of qualities that didn’t make it. Don’t let it. Hold on to them with all your might.
The heart is ungodly resilient.
One of my absolute favorite Rupi Kaur poems reads:
what is stronger
than the human heart
which shatters over and over
and still lives
AH. How powerful is that? How transcendent and sublime? How hopeful and compelling? The heart undertakes an unbearable amount of pain, and yet refuses to die. It’s a god damn survivor. YOU, are a god damn survivor.
Feel that. Feel it in your bones. Know that you can not only conquer pain but do so without surrendering the best parts of yourself. You can keep your heart tender, your mind open and your arms outstretched to all of this world’s beauty no matter how much ugliness it shows you time and time again.
Because that is what makes all the pain worth it in the first place. That, is being alive.