“I just wanted to thank you for making it so easy on me.”
“Huh?” Ok, so my response wasn’t the brightest, but in my defense, I’d been imitating a statue while trying to ignore both the buzzing in my right ear and the needles carving along my shoulder blade for about two hours.
Gus, the tattoo artist, explained. “Most people move around a lot. And complain about how much it’s hurting them.”
Nope. The explanation didn’t help. My response was still an internal ‘Huh?’ I pondered for a minute, and then said, “I don’t really get that. I mean, they knew that they were having a tattoo done, right? And that it involves needles? I don’t understand. Why complain about a pain that you chose?”
I could understand how someone’s concept of his or her own pain tolerance might not correspond to what is found in the face of actual pain. I get the discrepancy between what we think we can handle and how pain manifests to us in the moment. After all, we aren’t really wired to sit still and let a predator gnaw on us – even if the teeth are sterilized needles dripping ink instead of saliva. Still, complaining about it seemed odd to me. It’s not as if tattoo artists run around saying, “Don’t worry. It doesn’t hurt. It feels like fairies are tickling you with dandelion fluff.” C’mon folks, there’s a reason that tattoos have come to symbolize “tough” in our society, despite the increasing number of middle-aged women such as myself sporting ink. (My apologies to true aficionados of tattoo art. I can’t help feeling a bit like a poser, a dilettante dabbling in something that feels just a little dangerous and daring. But, that’s a discussion for another blog…)
Once I moved beyond the notion that it is insane to complain about the side effects of a completely elective event, I started thinking about pain, choices, and acceptance.
My own relationship with physical pain is probably a bit atypical for my background. In modern society, members of my gender, generation, and education don’t run across a lot of opportunities for injury. But pain and I are old friends. No, don’t get the wrong idea here. My parents were very non-physical (I think I was spanked about three times, pretty average for the ‘70s.), and my only experience with whips has been me holding them while riding or lunging a horse – no other humans anywhere near. However, the combination of my own clumsiness (my most recent skinned knee happened within the last 12 months), my physicality (I don’t wait for someone big and strong or wearing gloves to move something for me), and 30+ years of working with horses means that I have ample experience with a variety of bruises, lacerations, sprains, strains, and fractures. Add in an inclination toward migraines and having borne three children, and my response to physical pain tends to be, “Yep, it hurts, but it won’t hurt forever.”
Other pain is different, though. I realize that like Gus’s other clients, I do sometimes struggle with accepting the pain of my choices.
Tara Brach’s book, Radical Acceptance, has taken up more or less permanent residence on my dresser – handy for me to open on the days when I only have the strength to sink onto my bed and think ‘What the hell am I doing?’ Brach talks about the relationship between pain (emotional or mental, and sometimes even physical) to our feelings of unworthiness. Think about it. How often does “This isn’t fair; I can’t believe this is happening to me” really mean “I can’t believe I got myself into this. I suck. I’m stupid, lazy, blind, etc…”? In Radical Acceptance, Brach emphasizes that the way out of this death spiral, what she calls “the trance of unworthiness” is to completely accept our circumstances – where we are, what got us here – and to be compassionate with ourselves in those circumstances and around those choices. Acceptance, by the way, is not the same as resignation or even as condoning. For instance, we can accept that we have lied to ourselves or someone else or have done something else not compatible with our own ideals without giving ourselves permission to continue down that path. Acceptance is neither rolling over and peeing in the face of the inevitable nor giving oneself an out. Think of it as being one’s own best parent or teacher – clear sighted, loving, but giving firm guidance. (That’s my best translation. I recommend reading the book.)
Unfortunately, we aren’t programmed to accept. The human animal, like most, is wired to hide, escape, or attack in the face of pain or danger. Even when we have knowingly walked up to the threat and poked it in the nose with a stick, we have trouble accepting the reality.
Modern day risks are less likely to involve stealing a fish from a bear, and more likely to involve emotional, mental, or financial risk. In other words, it is our sense of self and of self-worth that is most likely to be placed in danger. We are uncomfortable with risk. We live in a society that both lauds and demonizes the risk takers. We make heroes of the highly successful – the bold capitalists, the extreme athletes, the flamboyant artists. Yet, at the same time, those who step outside of the safe mold are often marginalized. Why? Because, their lack of conformity is a threat. It shows us both what we can be, and what we stand to lose when the gamble fails. Why else do we avoid eye contact with the panhandler on the corner? Why do parents come unhinged when their teen comes home with a piercing, punk haircut, or tattoo (yes, I couldn’t resist.)?
We convince ourselves that if we do the “right” things, if we make the “safe” choices, that our lives will be free of pain. We complain about the pain that we choose, because we are unwilling to accept that the choice was ours.
We have both more and less control over our lives than we would like to think. The safe, conforming path is no guarantee of happiness, fulfillment, or safety. However, things rarely “just happen” to us. We often choose the circumstances that place us in the path of pain. We frequently choose our pain.
I first became aware of this tendency to complain about the consequences of our own choices years ago. It was one of my first experiences with an elementary school event. I was a shiny new mother, eager to volunteer, with starry-eyed visions of nurturing parents enhancing the educational community. The glow faded rapidly as the margaritas and dissatisfaction started to flow (at 10:30 in the morning). These mothers didn’t seem to be feeling the glow of contributing to the growth of the children they had chosen. They sounded resigned, beaten down, tired, bitter, and frankly resentful. It was clear that they had volunteered for the event because that was what “good mothers” do, but not because of any true desire on their parts.
I was almost in tears by the time we headed home. I remember telling my husband how I was afraid that I would someday resent my own children. The toxic atmosphere felt as though it had leached into my bones.
Years later, I am one of the older, experienced mothers. And, I’m now able to see both sides. Yes, I do find myself volunteering for tasks simply because it seems that there is slack that needs to be taken up. And yes, sometimes I’d rather be doing something else for myself. The stars in my eyes cleared out long ago. Yet, even as I ponder the rash on my arms from the bales of straw lifted at the school May Faire this weekend, I’ve learned to remind myself that this was my choice. I chose the children, the school, and to say “yes” when asked to volunteer. Each step along the path is one that I chose and that I need to own.
Most of the pains in my life – physical or non-physical – have stemmed from my choices. The thing for me to remember, and the thing that helps me to accept and to say, “Yep, it hurts, but it won’t hurt forever” is that most of the time, I made those choices because something else accompanied the pain. I’m no masochist. Every choice has two sides – risk and benefit.
We risk the pain of a failed relationship for the joy that it brings before. We risk the loss of a job for the rewards that job brings while it exists. We risk the fear of losing a child or the exhaustion, conflict, and tears of raising the child for the love and laughter the child brings into our lives. We risk the pain of the tattoo needles for the beauty or symbolism of the art.
And on that note, here is my recent tattoo – a phoenix rising from the flames. Can you guess what message I was sending to myself when I chose it?