When I was in college, I had many great educational moments- some of the more memorable having less to do with education than cleverness, sarcasm or personal triumph at the expense of ignorance- my own or someone else’s.
Probably the most memorable involved a theology seminar I took as a freshman. It was taught by a brilliant professor whom I admired greatly, and I was the youngest person in the class. I was cocky, charming and maybe a bit more arrogant than competent- but I was fascinated by the topic and I did want to learn. During a presentation I gave, I incorrectly used the term “paradox”, using it in place of the similar looking but very different meaning word “paradigm”.
The professor stopped me, and said “I believe I know what you meant. However, you must be careful in using words in an academic setting, well, in any setting. Paradox and paradigm may be easily confused in how they look, but not in how they mean. In any case, just to clarify, a paradox is a dual apparatus for parking boats.”
It took me a full minute to get the joke. But, twenty five years later, I have never forgotten it. Mostly because most of my own life and experience is filled with paradox. It’s something that I regularly think about. A paradox is something that at first glance, seems contradictory, or even insane- usually going against common sense or instinct, which, after investigation, is accepted as well-founded or true. In my experience, it’s a paradigm for life.
I have seen a lot of people in pain, many of them as a priest or counselor. I have also experienced significant personal pain, with a range of perceptions as to the consequences. When dealing with personal pain, especially in a therapeutic setting, it’s natural to want to get it out of the way as soon as possible. The problem is that the lessening of pain can be mistaken for resolution of the underlying issue. It’s like a stone in the shoe. If it is not taken out, it will continue to annoy or even cause great discomfort until it is removed.
Pain is a natural physiological warning system. Health care professionals all know that physical pain is important for the diagnosis and treatment of disease and injury. Pain tells us that something needs our attention, it’s a vital component of personal awareness. It’s also unpleasant, and when it becomes chronic it can create peripheral problems of depression, anxiety and low quality of life.
In my work, I see emotional pain in the same way. It helps to direct the attention to a particular place in the emotional framework of a person. In this way it can be enormously beneficial. It may also be terrifying. As humans, it seems natural to want to avoid pain at all costs. Indeed, avoiding pain is an enormous industry. Not only the pharmaceutical industry, but, one could argue, the alcohol industry, the candy industry, the movie industry and the many legal and illegal industries that promise temporary relief.
Emphasis on the word temporary.
To treat a physical injury, a close examination is, in most cases necessary to avoid complications down the road. Sometimes it is necessary to suffer more pain in order to eradicate it. Thus the “bite the bullet” metaphor. So it is with emotional injury.
That’s the paradox. In order to have less pain, we may have to feel more pain. And it’s not a gentle journey.
I remember a particularly difficult situation with someone in my care. She kept asking herself “Why can’t I let go? I want to let go!” I suggested that instead of trying to let go, she try holding on tighter. She basically accused me of being a sadist before I was able to explain. “Maybe because you don’t know exactly what you’re holding on to, you can’t let it go. I know it goes against your instincts, but holding on tighter might give you some valuable information. And I’m going to be here while you do that, so don’t be afraid.” It took a while, but by increasing resistance she was able to clearly identify a key to the fear that had held her hostage for several years.
It’s an old Gestalt maxim, “The Paradox of Change”, which is, essentially, change by not changing. Albert Bessler described it in this way:
“change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not. Change does not take place through a coercive attempt by the individual or by another person to change him, but it does take place if one takes the time and effort to be what he is — to be fully invested in his current positions. By rejecting the role of change agent, we make meaningful and orderly change possible (Bessler, 1970).
So the change is in awareness, not substance. We change not by trying to change or resisting change, but by simply being fully who we are- opening our eyes in the face of fears that tell us to keep them closed. In facing reality by entering the pain, the fear, the joy, the sadness, the shame, the anger- we do not necessarily experience more, we experience it in its proper context: fully informed reality. If we can experience the true self with all our senses intact, then life gets better. It’s the difference between seeing a black and white movie with no sound, out of focus on a small screen, and seeing the same movie in Technicolor and Surround Sound at Cinerama.
In my own life, it’s sometimes a struggle to remember to open my eyes. As a human being, I can get stubborn about holding onto my own suffering, closing my eyes to gain sympathy or just give into thoughts of anger, despair or sadness because it can be a very powerful place to be.
But I know it’s a dishonest place. With my eyes closed, I don’t have all the information I need to make good decisions- I can’t honestly evaluate myself and the world around me. I want to have all my senses alert and functioning- in spite of the possibility of pain, because I know that life is richer this way. And most importantly, I know the lies pain can bring. These lies include “You will never survive this hurt, it will hurt forever, no one will ever understand you, it’s too much, it’s too difficult, it takes too long.” All lies. All unprovable fear-mongering.
The truth: All pain is temporary- even if we prolong it with fear and ignorance and shame, it cannot last forever. But, the paradox is, it always has something to teach- if we can keep our eyes open. As the Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki said:
“Hell is not punishment, it’s training.”