I know less with certainty now at middle-age than I did at seventeen but I know a few things: life is messy, people are complicated, and there is no joy without the potential for pain. In the last year I’ve had conversations with several men who told me they don’t want to get involved in a relationship because they might potentially cause the woman pain and they don’t want to be responsible for causing anyone pain.
I commend the concern for others behind their actions. However, I believe to experience life fully is why we were put here on earth to begin with. To not enter into human relationships because you may, or may not, inadvertently cause another human being pain seems unbearably paternalistic and may also keep one from experiencing life to its full potential.
Of course, we should not go about purposefully causing our fellow inmates pain. I believe in being polite and having honest concern for the feelings of those around us. But I also believe that as long as our actions come from an honest place the people we interact with are responsible for their own feelings and reactions to our behavior. There are no intimate human relationships that are free of pain for we can never know each other completely. The best we can do is try and understand our own feelings and needs as well as possible and be honest with others about them.
All pain comes from loss of some kind. The death of a loved one; loss of affection from break ups and divorce; losing our children to the streets or another parent; all painful losses. Even physical pain is mostly caused by loss: loss of blood, loss of bodily functions, no longer being able to breath, bend, run, move the way we once could. But none of this would cause pain if first we had not experienced the joy of love, affection, and the perfect functioning of the human body. It is the loss of the joyful experience that brings the pain. A painter who can no longer paint, a dancer who can no longer dance, a singer who can no longer sing; each of these experienced first the joy and then the pain from loss.
Should we not love each stage of our child’s development even though we know we will feel that tinge of pain when they grow and the baby we knew is no longer there? Should we not enjoy the love of our mate fully because they may one day decide to move on or because it may cause another to feel more strongly the pain of being alone? Should we not enjoy every moment we have left with our dying brother knowing full well that when he is gone our heart will ache until we’re sure it will stop beating? Should we not try over and over again to find the partner who will nourish our soul even if it means that along the way we must say good-bye to those we have tried and failed with?
In my own life I often ask myself when in pain, “If I knew this loss was coming, would it have changed my actions?” Would I still have moved to New York if I’d known in advance I would lose everything I owned to a fire? The answer is “Yes”, because if I hadn’t I would never have met my beautiful friend Gwen and knowing her is something I would never give up. I wouldn’t go back and change even the most painful experience I’ve had with a man since my divorce because I know the reason the pain was so severe is because the joy in the beginning was so heightened. Go back and change any of these things and you lose the joy along with the pain and everything you learned about life and love along the way that makes you who you are at this moment. Would I go back and not spend 19 years with my ex-husband in order to avoid the painful loss of divorce? Deny the good years? The friends we shared? The home we built? The children we helped raise? Of course not. Would choosing another path have been pain free? Of course not. Pain is part of the human experience and not something any of us can run fast enough to get away from.
People are complicated. No matter how well you know a person there is no way you can truly know how they might react to something. My ex-husband often didn’t tell me things and when I would invariably learn of them later he would always say he didn’t want to tell me because he knew it would upset me. He was often wrong. After nineteen years of marriage he still could not predict with certainty how I would feel and react. Often we can’t predict ourselves how we might feel about something until it happens. Why? Because we’re all complicated human beings who are continually changing and none of us have enough knowledge to predict something as complex and misunderstood as human emotions.
Life is messy. It comes complete with new jobs, old lovers, beautiful sunrises, teen-age angst, new born babies, frightening diseases, and the indignities of old age. It’s a big, messy, mish-mosh of intense joy and horrible pain. There is no getting away from it or somehow protecting ourselves from it.
It is the moments of joy that we live for but it is the pain in life which usually brings us knowledge and growth. It is our painful mistakes, bad choices, and the inadvertent behaviors of others that teach us the most about life and help us to learn about the fellow humans we share the planet with. Deny the pain, and none of us could ever grow to our full potential.
So I say to the men who are avoiding pain, “What if by avoiding pain you’re missing a chance to share in immense joy?”
I think it may be possible that because I live life with my arms always stretched out to grasp joy wherever I can find it I also open myself up to more pain than others do. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ll suffer the pain to experience the joy that I don’t want to live without. So please, don’t hold back with me. Let me know all of you: the good and the bad, the fun and the staid, the sweet and the sour, bold and the shy, the joy and the pain. I want to know it all. I want to feel it all. I want to die knowing I experienced life fully and didn’t hold back out of fear of being hurt.
August 24, 2011