Skip to content

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.

8 thoughts on “in pain’s classroom”

  1. I loved your Thanksgiving card! But it’s also nice to know that you are human and that you have your own downs as well as ups. Thanks for being so honest and sharing, and take care if yourself! Hope you feel better soon. Xxo

  2. Hannah.

    This might sound sick, but I love that you were writing your Thanksgiving newsletter during this time. It’s weird how our stories are so often written for us – oh yeah, wouldn’t that be a nice twist? Force her to show gratitude at the same time she wants to rip her hair out?!

    Thanks for getting back to writing. I’ve missed it.

  3. I know I am preaching to the choir – but here is the poem i have been reading in class this week.
    Just thought id share-

    By Mary Oliver

    Every day
    I see or hear
    that more or less

    kills me
    with delight,
    that leaves me
    like a needle

    in the haystack
    of light.
    It was what I was born for—
    to look, to listen,

    to lose myself
    inside this soft world—
    to instruct myself
    over and over

    in joy,
    and acclamation.
    Nor am I talking
    about the exceptional,

    the fearful, the dreadful,
    the very extravagant—
    but of the ordinary,
    the common, the very drab,

    the daily presentations.
    Oh, good scholar,
    I say to myself,
    how can you help

    but grow wise
    with such teachings
    as these—
    the untrimmable light

    of the world,
    the ocean’s shine,
    the prayers that are made
    out of grass?

    “Pay attention. Be astonished. And tell about it. We’re soaked in distractions. The world didn’t have to be beautiful.
    We can and should think about that beauty and be grateful.”

    1. This is one of my absolute favorite M.O. poems! It’s actually the page I asked her to sign in my book when I went to hear her at the MFA in October! Thanks for the reminder, Willa.

  4. This is what I needed to hear. I’m not alone in my pain. My pain is legitimate. It’s ok to care for ourselves. Healing is the most important. xoxo

Comments are closed.