My topic today is the relationship between pain and change, and whether the two must be inexorably linked. My hope is that we can separate the two, and affect change without first being beaten into submission by pain. I started down this particular path as I listened to the first novel in Kresley Cole’s fabulous “Immortals After Dark” series, A Hunger Like No Other (a title I actually like – surprise). In the book, Emma, our half vampire/half Valkyrie heroine, recalls an early childhood lesson. With her vampire nature, the sun is deadly to Emma, and she has the scars to prove it. When she was small, one of her aunts allowed Emma to place her hand in the path of the sunshine streaming through an open door. The rays quickly burned Emma’s hand, and the pain taught her a lesson that no amount of schooling could ever replicate. Emma’s other relatives were horrified, but the aunt who orchestrated the “lesson” said that it was better to learn early and well, through a relatively small pain, than to have to learn later when the stakes could be fatal.
It took a lot but eventually, as they say, “I was sick and tired of being sick and tired.” I endured the seemingly endless suffering and constant fatigue caused by my lifestyle choices (and a genetic predisposition), before I was willing to make the changes necessary to heal. And those changes were extreme. I had to leave my high-stress Pentagon job, rethink everything I ate and drank — and I mean everything — address my sleep, the way I exercised and my techniques for stress management (apparently, wine is not the technique of choice, more’s the pity). I went from a high-powered national security analyst who thought I ate pretty well, to a gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar and processed-food-free yoga and TM®-practicing naturopath. Not to mention I cut my long hair short and switched from PCs and Blackberries to MacBooks and iPhones. In the end, there was very little of my old existence left — with the important exceptions of my relationships and my home, all of which served to ground me during this upheaval.
I desperately needed to make all of these changes. My lifestyle was killing me —literally. But I resisted making the necessary modifications mightily; it all seemed too much to give up. I was very attached to my identity as a national security analyst doing globally important work. I was attached to the foods I liked, and addicted to the compulsive busyness of that existence. I felt that to give up would leave me as the hole in the doughnut. I had no idea who I would be if I wasn’t the person I thought I was.
Finally, I couldn’t tolerate the pain any more, even though part of me wanted to continue to hold on. So I let go. Not quite all at once, but I made enough changes that I started the snowball rolling down the hill, gaining momentum, gathering more changes along the way.
Such change brings about its own brand of pain — or rather discomfort, as the doctor always tells us. And through all of this, I learned something else: discomfort is often more intolerable than pain. It’s like the torture device in The Princess Bride. Pain can be compartmentalized. Discomfort crawls up underneath our skin and slithers around in there, making us squirm. So we avoid it, like the plague, even if the price is pain. Until someone ratchets up the machine to 11, and like Westley in The Princess Bride, we can’t ignore it anymore. That is always a bad day. But it’s a day that sets us free, too, in a way.
I don’t think we ever know, except in hindsight, what the final straw is going to be. Do we need more pain to learn and change? I don’t know. I always hope not. But we shall see. In my experience, the letting go and the discomfort of change is never as bad as it seems in anticipation. This was true for Emma in A Hunger Like No Other, and I think this a universal truth, like so many I find in my beloved fantasy books. Often, the present reality is much less terrible than the fantasy we projected onto the future when we were back in the past. Emma came to that realization when she declared that if this was the worst life could throw at her (in her case, kidnapping and multiple attacks), then life could Bring. It. On. I agree. I’ve been through a great deal, and I’ve come out the other side. So maybe, next time, I won’t have to wait till the machine hits level 11 before I decide to embrace the necessary transformation. After all, life is change, is it not?