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in pain’s classroom

The month of November was shrouded in misery. Did teaching feel impossible because I was sick all month or was I sick all month because teaching felt impossible? There were three consecutive colds (well, it might have been one long cold with two brief intermissions). My hips were sliding out of place every couple weeks. I was working on an MFA application and dragging myself to rehearsals for The Sound of Music. And in the midst of it all, I was writing my annual Thanksgiving newsletter.

I’d stumble home from school or a chiropractor appointment and park myself on my heating pad. I’d gargle salt water and drown my sorrows in herbal tea (let’s be honest, at best herbal tea gets sorrows slightly soggy . . . drowning them wasn’t going to happen). I’d stare at the photos and card stock on my desk.

There, in bright hues, was evidence of my blessedness. This is no big deal, I told myself again and again. It’s a cold. It’s a rough season at work. It’s a minor skeletal issue. Look at all the goodness in your life. You’re getting married! You’re surrounded by beautiful friends and family! You’ve had such a wonderful year!

So I pieced the newsletter together between bowls of soup and sneezing sessions. I felt about as much enthusiasm as a kid forced to write a thank you note for a toy that just broke.

The pain in my hips offered a window to a world I don’t like to think about. Many, many people are in a lot more pain than you, I reminded myself. Somehow the notion didn’t cheer me. Indeed, my pain paled in comparison to the storyline I was building up around it. How much of my wedding savings am I going to siphon off for chiropractor bills? What if this is going to be a chronic problem? What if I won’t be able to practice yoga anymore? How can I be of any good to anyone if I’m hurting?

I believe pain is one of life’s great teachers. Still, as soon as it appears at the lectern of my life, I start tossing spitballs and folding paper airplanes.

The newsletters went into the mail. David and I spent an unusually pleasant Thanksgiving with my family: so relaxed and jovial that I began to feel some of the gratitude that I’d been faking on paper. By December first, my sinuses were clearing. Singing without pain? Heavenly. I started physical therapy. I can’t say the hip problems have vanished, but I’m doing what I can.

Eckhart Tolle writes, Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness. How do you know this is the experience you need? Because this is the experience you are having at this moment.

So, Eckhart, here’s what I’ve been learning from my recent experiences.

1. Lay off the self-judgment. There is a toddler within each of us, and it does no good to tell that toddler: This is no big deal. The other night I broke down sobbing to David, a tirade that included repeated iterations of “It’s not fair,” and “It’s just so hard.” David, wise soul that he is, offered not solutions but presence. And you know what? It helped. A lot.

2. Pain wants to be felt. Of course we take wise action toward healing, but wise action is different from constant obsessive thought. At the end of the day (or at the beginning or middle, for that matter), I want to inhabit this fleshy mystery of a body. And that means surrendering to its ever-changing sensations. If I can show up for the pain, surely I’ll be better equipped to embrace the pleasure.

3. There are indeed many people who are in pain. Never mind comparing your struggles to theirs. Just put down the spitballs and fold your hands at your desk. Then take a look around the classroom. You’re in good company.