Kahlil Gibran on Pain as Our Greatest Gift

Why do we feel pain?  Evolutionarily, pain has been essential to our survival.  When our the prophetNeanderthal ancestors suffered a brutal wound from a saber-toothed tiger or pricked their finger on a thorn, their pain receptors sent a message straight to their cerebral cortex: “Ouch, that hurts!”  The result?  Over many millennia, homo sapiens learned to associate pain with high-risk activities like hunting for caribou on the African veldt and chasing rabbits into a rose bush.  Pain is a distress signal: when we hear the sudden shriek of its alarm bells, we know to stop.  The child who ignores his mother’s warning and touches a hot stove, for example, will learn stove = burn. Pain is our body’s way of protecting us.

But when we’re crushed by the magnitude of a colossal loss like the death of a loved one or a terrible break up, we want one thing and one thing only— for the pain to stop.  “When will it end?” is the most common question among the bereaved and brokenhearted.  “A month from now?  six months from now?  a year?”  We want to calculate grief with the certainty of a math theorem, to compress it into a manageable slot in our calendar.

“How long does it take to get over someone?” I surveyed friends and countless advice columns after I broke up with my boyfriend of ten years.  Some proposed tired-and-true formulas: “Half the length of the relationship.”  “Fuck,” I thought to myself, “that means I’ll be feeling this devastated/inconsolable/not-quite-normal for another five years!”  Others offered concrete lengths of time as if grief were an independent rather than dependent variable in an algebra problem: “You just need a year,” several friends reassured me in the desperate dimness of our local dive bar.

Certainly a year was more bearable than five but it still sounded intolerable.  How could I withstand another 365 days of pitying glances from concerned family and friends?  How could I cope with another 365 mornings of an empty bed?  How could I endure another 52 unoccupied weekends where there were once movie nights and day trips and dog walks?  In short, how could I go on?

The pain of a breakup is so excruciating because mementos of our former lover are everywhere: on the quiet neighborhood street along our normal walking route, among heads of cabbage at the grocery store.  I felt my boyfriend’s absence when I opened the wrinkled pages of a beloved book and found the Rilke poem he wrote inside the front cover, when I chanced upon a mug he bought me in the cupboard.  Standing in my kitchen, a peanut butter jar might remind me of an affectionate nickname we had for each other, a bottle of Absinthe might call to mind our first trip abroad.  Driving along the jagged cliffs of Highway 1 on a breezy spring day, I’d recall us cruising along the same road and stopping at the beach to watch the sunset on a similar day many years before.  The copy of The Collected Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway on my bookshelf incited feelings of sorrowful regret (“Would I ever find someone that thoughtful again?” I wondered) while the succulent near my kitchen window reminded me of his passion for the outdoors.  At certain times of the week when we had traditionally done things together, there was a tragic disparity between the blissful past and lonesome, loveless present: Friday nights brought back dinners at our favorite Korean restaurant; Saturday afternoons, long, leisurely strolls through the park; weekday nights, reading in the sort of companionable silence only possible when you’re deeply in love.

Sometimes the pain of losing my boyfriend was a dull ache; other times it was a steady, relentless throb.  On some days, it was a sudden, sharp twinge; on other days, it was a punch to the gut.  Occasionally my pain was only a minor inconvenience like the sting of paper cut; more often, it had the stabbing intensity of a knife through the heart.

During those terrible months, I just wanted the suffering to stop.  I was tired of feeling wretched all the time, tired of bursting into tears at the sound of a song.  I longed for warm weather, cloudless blue skies, fields of chrysanthemums but I was engulfed in a winter storm.  Bitter winds whipped my skin, temperatures dropped.  Would I ever again behold the blossoms of spring, I wondered, or was I eternally condemned to this dark season of the soul?

gibran mystical hand

In his 1923 masterwork, The Prophet, poet, painter, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran suggests spring always arrives even if winter feels interminable.  Rather than bolt from pain— or desensitize it with familiar vices such as pills or Pap’s Blue Ribbon or promiscuous sex in cheap motels and grimy bathroom stalls— Gibran advises we accept the lessons it has to teach us.  Pain not only enlarges our hearts, it makes joy possible:

“Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.
Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.
And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy;
And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields.
And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.”

When we experience grief or loss, the first thing we do is feel sorry for ourselves.  “Why, oh why,” we cry melodramatically, “is this happening to us?”  Shattered and stunned, we look to the cosmos and curse the cruel, sadistic gods.  What did we do to deserve such an unfortunate fate?  How could life so heartlessly take away our husbands and jobs?

Instead of collapse into self-pity, Gibran asks us to remember that our trials and tribulations are gifts— not punishments— from God:

“Much of your pain is self-chosen.
It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self.
Therefore trust the physician, and drink his remedy in silence and tranquillity:
For his hand, though heavy and hard, is guided by the tender hand of the Unseen,
And the cup he brings, though it burn your lips, has been fashioned of the clay which the Potter has moistened with His own sacred tears.”

The Prophet is an indispensable guide to the good life.  If you want more of Gibran’s breathtakingly beautiful and endlessly wise insights into life, revisit him on joy and sorrow, labor as a form of love and love as our most demanding work.

 

Kahlil Gibran on Joy & Sorrow

“What if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much asthe prophet possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other?” the great German philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche once wondered.  We usually think opposites are the antithesis of each other when— in fact— one contains the other.  Before the hope of a new dawn, there is the darkness of dusk; before birth, death; before calm, a storm.  Pleasure cannot exist without pain; love cannot exist without loss.  How wonderful, we think, to wipe Mondays forever from our calendars!  Yet we can only have the giddy anticipation of clocking out on Friday if we have the existential dread of returning to the office three days later. 

Poet, painter, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran ponders this puzzling paradox in The Prophet, his 1923 masterwork.  Though we often want to escape the pain of distressing emotions— despair, heartbreak, anger, sadness, grief— we have to endure the wilderness to eventually arrive at the promised land of happiness and healing.  As Gibran writes, in order to experience the ecstatic elation of joy, we must first experience the despondency of sorrow: 

“The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.”

Which is more powerful: joy or sorrow?  comfort and calm or angst and anguish?  bliss or hell?  Gibran contends joy and sorrow are not irreconcilable antipodes— they’re two corresponding, if opposite, halves of the same whole:

“Some of you say, ‘Joy is greater than sorrow,’ and others say, ‘Nay, sorrow is the greater.’
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.”  

joy & sorrow

Longing for more gushing beauty and poised poetry?  Delight in Gibran’s timeless wisdom on pleasure and pain, labor as a form of love, and love as our most demanding work.

Kahlil Gibran on Labor as a Form of Love

Since God exiled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, work has been understood as burdensome toilthe prophet.  Though the nature of work has changed over the centuries, our conception of work has largely remained the same since the Bible.  Both the 19th century factory worker and the 20th century accountant understood work as a necessary evil: if they wanted roofs over their heads and food on their tables, they had to work, whether that be for 12 backbreaking hours a day in the wretched conditions of a soot-covered textile mill or for 40 hours a week staring at a screen in the mind-numbing monotony of a cubicle.  As positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi observed in his groundbreaking Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, we view work as “an imposition, a constraint, an infringement of our freedom, and therefore something to be avoided as much as possible.”

But though the majority of us consider work drudgery, a job can be more than an obligatory occupation done to pay the bills: it can be an act of service, a demonstration of our deepest convictions, an expression of our truest selves.

In his timeless classic The Prophet, poet, painter, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran argues we should reframe our attitude toward work.  Why?  Because when we dread Monday mornings at the office, when we spend our days shooting crumbled paper into trash cans and bitterly composing what we think are pointless emails, work feels futile.  But when we work with love and devoted attention, when we connect what we do to a higher meaning, our labor— and our lives— seem more worthwhile:

“And all work is empty save when there

is love;

And when you work with love you bind

yourself to yourself, and to one another,

and to God.”

adam & eve

What, exactly, does it mean to work with love?  For Gibran, working with love is working with a lover’s tenderness and an artist’s attention.  Rather than hurry through mundane tasks, we should treat the commonplace chores of life as if they were consecrated.  If we’re washing dishes at a restaurant, we should scrub each dish as if it were to be the place setting for a glorious banquet held in our significant other’s honor.  If we’re brewing coffee as a barista, we should prepare each cappuccino as if it were a hand-crafted indulgence for our lover.  And if we’re at our 9-to-5 office job, we should act as if we’re writing an expressive, heartfelt letter to our beloved— not just another humdrum email.  As Gibran writes, working with love is:

“…to weave the cloth with threads

drawn from your heart, even as if your

beloved were to wear that cloth.

It is to build a house with affection, even

as if your beloved were to dwell in that

house.

It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap

the harvest with joy, even as if your beloved

were to eat the fruit.

It is to charge all things you fashion with

a breath of your own spirit.”

Labor can be a poignant expression of love.  Through our work, we serve our fellow man: the farmer sows the seeds and reaps the harvest that feeds nations, the doctor heals the wounded and tends to the sick.  Yet most of us begrudge work.  Take a school teacher who views herself as a glorified babysitter.  She loathes writing lesson plans and resents every Saturday night she has to decline an invitation to grade midterms.  Eventually her students get the sense that she doesn’t care and they stop caring altogether.  They read her perfunctory comments scribbled in embittered red ink on their terms papers and— rather than really reflect on how they can do better— only put forth the bare minimum of effort on their next paper.  After all, why would they want to learn the Pythagorean theorem or Einstein’s theory of relativity, why would they devote the time and energy required to memorizing their timetables or composing a beautifully-crafted, logically sound essay, if their own teacher obsessively monitors the minutes until class is over?  In some of the 20th century’s most breathtakingly beautiful prose, Gibran asserts bitterness transforms what could be a noble act of service into obligatory, much despised labor:

“For if you bake bread with indifference,

you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half

man’s hunger.

And if you grudge the crushing of the

grapes, your grudge distills a poison in the

wine.

And if you sing though as angels, and

love not the singing, you muffle man’s ears

to the voices of the day and the voice of

the night.”

For more of Gibran’s enduring wisdom, contemplate his lovely meditations on joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, and love as our most demanding work.

Kahlil Gibran on Love as Our Most Demanding Work

 

Though we’re told relationships require we sacrifice our independent identities, a loving, lastingthe prophet union is only possible if both partners preserve their own separate sense of selves.  Real love not the idealized love peddled by Hollywood and Hallmark cardsis a union of two autonomous I’s: it’s a concentration, not a dilution, of self.  As prolific poet and dedicated diarist Sylvia Plath once wrote, love is not one person eclipsing another but a coming together of “two over-lapping circles, with a certain strong riveted center of common ground, both with separate arcs jutting out in the world.”

Relationships cannot complete us nor can they rescue or redeem.  We might imagine love— to borrow the lovely words of Edna St. Vincent Millay— can “clean the blood” and “set the fractured bone” but love cannot mend the broken soul.  Despite prevailing myth, prince charming will never gallop in on a white horse and save us; we have to save ourselves.

And though we romanticize love as champagne and chocolate and roses, love is difficult, at times, unbearably so.  For every romantic proposal of marriage, there’s a heart-wrenching divorce; for every declaration of undying devotion, a broken promise; for every tender kiss and affectionate nickname, a spiteful word and slammed door.  Love demands we let down our defenses and allow another to penetrate the usually impenetrable fortress of our hearts.  When we love someone, we’re essentially lowering a drawbridge so they can sidestep our moats.  If we let them infiltrate our castle, we risk being heartbroken when they leave or otherwise betray us.  Ultimately, to open ourselves to love is to open ourselves to loss.  As the great Rilke once said, “For one human being to love another; that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.”  

The inherent difficulty of loving is what poet, painter, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran explores in his breathtaking masterpiece The Prophet, a trove of wisdom on such timeless topics as joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure, love and work.  In one of his most beloved passages, Gibran implores us to obey love, though it always has the capacity to hurt:

When love beckons to you, follow him,

     Though his ways are hard and steep.

     And when his wings enfold you yield to

him,

     Though the sword hidden among his

pinions may wound you.

     And when he speaks to you believe in

him,

     Though his voice may shatter your dreams

as the north wind lays waste the garden.

     For even as love crowns you so shall he

crucify you. Even as he is for your growth

so is he for your pruning.

     Even as he ascends to your height and

caresses your tenderest branches that quiver

in the sun,

     So shall he descend to your roots and

shake them in their clinging to the earth.

     Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto

himself.

     He threshes you to make you naked.

     He sifts you to free you from your husks.

     He grinds you to whiteness.

     He kneads you until you are pliant;

     And then he assigns you to his sacred

fire, that you may become sacred bread for

God’s sacred feast.” 

gibran painting

Since biblical times, man has imagined himself the almighty ruler of the universe.  God, we believed, made us in his likeness and gave us dominion over sea and earth.  Unlike the beasts and babes, he endowed us with disproportionately large brains.  Over the course of our history, we’ve accomplished extraordinary feats from painting the Sistine Chapel to cloning sheep.  Yet despite our impressive artistic and scientific achievements, we’re not all-powerful or all-knowing.  No matter how hard we try to unravel the mighty mysteries of love, certain things will always lie beyond our control or understanding: we can never command passion or know why, exactly, we prefer brunettes to blondes.  As Gibran reminds us, we’re not at the helm of our own hearts:

     “And think not you can direct the course

of love, for love, if it finds you worthy,

directs your course.”

Gibran concludes with a list of commandments meant to embolden us to love despite its inseparability from loss.  In matters of the heart, he argues, we should resolve:

     “To melt and be like a running brook

that sings its melody to the night.

     To know the pain of too much tenderness.

     To be wounded by your own understanding of love;

     And to bleed willingly and joyfully.

     To wake at dawn with a winged heart

and give thanks for another day of loving;

     To rest at the noon hour and meditate

love’s ecstasy;

     To return home at eventide with gratitude;

     And then to sleep with a prayer for the

beloved in your heart and a song of praise

upon your lips.”

For more illuminating insights into love, read Alain de Botton on love’s two stages: idealization and disillusionmentdating as a form of performative playacting, love as the origin of beauty, and the lover as a detective obsessed with decoding symbols and discerning significance.  Disillusioned from one too many disastrous relationships?  Find hope in Mr. de Botton’s impassioned plea to never relinquish love.