Human beings are wired to avoid pain. Touch a hot stove once, and we steer clear next time the burner is lit. Get rebuffed by a loved one when we make a request, and we may hesitate to ask the next time. Similarly, we humans pursue pleasure. Remember the advertising catch phrase for potato chips — “Nobody can eat just one”? Some foods, like chocolate and salty snacks, entice us to have bite after bite. And biologists maintain that sexual pleasure is an evolutionary response to ensure the propagation of our species. But we may have the logic all wrong, or at the very least, we are looking at pleasure and pain through a black and white lens.
The Lessons in Our Experiences
Most of us can agree that the world resides largely in the “gray area” — very little in our experience is absolutely wrong or always right. Yet, we continue to avoid pain at any cost, assuming that it’s presence signals imminent harm to our physical or psychic selves and we are best served giving all painful stimuli a wide berth. If we truly embrace the “gray”, however, we see that pain, discomfort and distress have something to teach us. For example, if conflict with my son’s dad makes me nervous, I am likely to avoid bringing up contentious topics. But if I adopt the view that my anxiety is a lesson of some sort, if I slow down and LEAN INTO the fear rather than away from it, I may discover key insights about myself. Sitting with my discomfort, I may remember events from childhood that taught me not to upset others. I may understand that it isn’t conflict that I fear, but the possibility of losing the fight. Perhaps my anxiety is a reminder that I need to build up my “muscles” of assertiveness and self-value. Avoiding what pains me might rob me of a deeper understanding of the spectrum of human behavior and feelings. I’m not suggesting we look for opportunities to shame, hurt or harm ourselves. But perhaps the next time we feel depressed, lonely, angry or hurt, we can pause before fleeing away from those emotions. We can ask ourselves to be open to the guidance and revelations those feelings have to share. Learning to lean into our distress helps us grow in compassion and understanding of the joys and sorrows of our fellow beings. From our vantage point within the “gray”, we can see the rainbow prism of real life, it’s darks and brights, it’s ethereal and it’s mundane. Let’s lean forward, together.