What do we do with our pain?


When my grandmother was 74 years old, her leg was crushed under a golf cart, when the bridge she was passing over collapsed, launching her and her golf cart down into a small creek. Her friend, who she was out golfing with, escaped the fall with a few scrapes and bruises, but Maw-Maw, as I grew up calling her, had to have skin grafts and months of dressing changes following the incident, and her left calf was permanently scarred and dented.

In the days that followed the accident, personal injury lawyers kept calling her up and sending her gift baskets, trying to woo her. It would have been an easy case. Grandma falls when bridge collapses; a negligent golf course is to blame. Only, Maw-Maw wasn’t interested in a law suit.

In a society where you can sue for coffee being too hot, making the threat, empty or real of “I’m calling my lawyer,” is ubiquitous. Laws and courts exist for a good reason, but all good systems can be abused, and there is perhaps nothing we as a country have abused more than our legal system.

It is the place where we can turn with blame, rage, and anger that has no home—a place where we can demand that someone take responsibility for something senseless that has occurred. Only sometimes something is truly, totally senseless. Something bad happened, and there is genuinely nobody to specific to blame.

Most of us (myself included) are not very skillful at just sitting with the pain. It’s so uncomfortable we want to lash out at anyone or anything to try to escape, even just a little bit, from our discomfort. And we want to pin it on someone or something—as if finding the right target to blame will solve the actual problem.

If my family had a patron saint, Maw-Maw would certainly be ours. Several years after the golf cart incident, when she learned that she had an aggressive brain tumor, she turned to the assembled family members who’d accompanied her to the appointment, and said, “Let’s go get ice cream.” As a doctor, she had perhaps a better sense of the futility of treatment given her circumstance, and she chose, on the spot, the relish the time she had left—doing things she loved with the people she loved.

Maw-Maw’s internal compass was always oriented towards love. Even when she was in pain. Even when she was dying. And this doesn’t mean she was a doormat, letting people take advantage of her. Rather it means that she was ruled by her internal court instead of giving all her agency to wild furies that flew around her.

My grandmother has been gone for fifteen years now…a statistic that seems truly unfathomable. I didn’t know when I was sixteen, and she was dying, that I should ask her how she learned to sit with her pain. Perhaps it was such an innate quality in her that she couldn’t have explained how anyways.

It’s hard to know what is teachable and learnable in the span of a human lifetime. I could spend my next forty years trying to inch closer to Maw-Maw’s equanimity, and not budge from my starting block. But I do know, that her way of being in the world, was the best way I’ve ever seen.

There are times when people wrong us, and we have to stand up for ourselves—but there are other times when we'd do well to remember that some pain is just part of the human experience, and it’s blameless—and it belongs to everyone. This kind of pain does not require action. It requires stillness, and breathing into the moment, no matter how hard it might be.