Why do we feel pain? Evolutionarily, pain has been essential to our survival. When our Neanderthal 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 day planner.
“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? another 365 evenings of depressing dinner tables set for one? 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?
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.