German philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche’s pithy aphorism “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” is so oft uttered it borders on cliche. But, like all timeless platitudes, his words endure because they capture a truth abiding and incontrovertible: pain— though unpleasant— is essential. As satirist Russell Baker quipped, “I’ve had an unhappy life, thank God.” Though most of us would happily forgo crisis and catastrophe, adversity fortifies the soul; indeed, it is the life tormented by hardship and misfortune, trauma and woe that builds the most resilient, courageous individuals. Those unfortunate enough to lead a blissful existence never develop themselves.
To fully experience any emotion, one must experience its converse: there can only be satisfaction if there’s discontent, enchantment if there’s disillusion, hope if there’s despair. After all, we wouldn’t giddily anticipate Fridays unless we had to return to the office three days later. “What if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other?” Nietzsche once wondered.
Though philosophers have preached the value of suffering for millennia, it remains our natural inclination to avoid pain. Rather than meet the behemoth of pain boldly and stout-heartededly, we cowardly retreat, erecting all kinds of barriers to protect us from the intolerable discomfort of vulnerability.
But it is pain, Buddhist monk Pema Chodron suggests in her slim but imponderably insightful volume Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves From Old Habits and Fears, that reminds us of our shared human predicament and connects us with bodhicitta, the Buddhist term for “enlightened mind” or “open heart.” In Buddhist tradition, pain is not something to flee but rather something to embrace as an inevitable part of life. Despite our cultural aversion to anything difficult, hardship is crucial because it sheds light on the conundrum of the human condition and makes us kinder and more merciful.
When her mother dies and she has to sift through box upon box of her things, Chodron comes to the dispiriting realization that— though her mother cherished these belongings— they, in themselves, possess no objective meaning. But rather than let such a distressing insight send her into an existential tailspin, she uses pain as a portal to better understand the human plight. Warm and boundlessly wise, Chodron comes to feel compassion for all the people who— just like her and her mother— suffer because they attribute too much significance to the inconsequential:
“Before we know what natural warmth really is, often we must experience loss. We go along for years moving through our days, propelled by habit, taking life pretty much for granted. Then we or someone close to us has an accident or gets seriously ill, and it’s as if the blinders have been removed from our eyes. We see the meaninglessness of so much of what we do and the emptiness of so much we cling to.
When my mother died and I was asked to go through her personal belongings, this awareness hit me hard. She had kept boxes of papers and trinkets that she treasured, things that she held on to through her many moves to smaller and smaller accommodations. They had represented security and comfort for her, and she had been unable to let them go. Now they were just boxes of stuff, things that held no meaning and represented no comfort or security to anyone. For me these were just empty objects, yet she had clung to them. Seeing this made me sad, and also thoughtful. After that I could never look at my own treasured objects the same way. I had seen that the objects themselves are just what they are, neither precious nor worthless, and that all the labels, all our views and opinions about them, are arbitrary.
This was an experience of basic warmth. The loss of my mother and the pain of seeing so clearly how we impose judgements and values, prejudices, likes and dislikes, onto the world, made me feel great compassion for our shared human predicament. I remember explaining to myself that the whole world consisted of people just like me who were making much ado about nothing and suffering from it tremendously.”
The miracle of pain is that it enlarges our hearts. When we lie shattered after our partner deserts us, for instance, we join an infinite chain connecting millions of love lorn. Suddenly, we can sympathize with anyone who has suffered a broken heart. Empathy, tenderness, understanding: all are profound lessons pain can teach us:
“When my second marriage fell apart, I tasted the rawness of grief, the utter groundlessness of sorrow, and all the protective shields I had always managed to keep in place fell to pieces. To my surprise, along with the pain, I also felt an uncontrived tenderness for other people. I remember the complete openness and gentleness I felt for those I met briefly in the post office or at the grocery store. I found myself approaching the people I encountered as just like me- fully alive, fully capable of meanness and kindness, of stumbling and falling down and of standing up again. I never before experienced that much intimacy with unknown people. I could look in the eyes of store clerks and car mechanics, beggars and children, and feel our sameness. Somehow when my heart broke, the qualities of natural warmth, qualities like kindness and empathy and appreciation, just simultaneously emerged.”
“How far that little candle throws his beams!” exclaimed Shakespeare when contemplating the far-reaching reverberations of a small, ordinary act of kindness. However much we loathe its lessons, pain illuminates the world by instructing us in the vital ways of having a warm heart.