After graduation, after a divorce, after an election
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This month we begin a new section of The Sun called US. It’s a modest effort to provoke conversation among us about questions on which we’re the only authorities. This is, literally, your part of the magazine. Writing style isn’t important; thoughtfulness, and sincerity, is.
Our first question — “What was your most painful experience?” — was, in retrospect, awkwardly worded. We were not so interested in our readers quantifying their pain as in finding out what pain meant to them. Nonetheless, the response was encouraging — including the letters from people who said their most painful experience was too painful to write about.
What follows is by no means a thorough treatment of the subject. If there’s something you’d like to add, send it in.
Next month, US will be about dreams. Our question is: How important to you is your non-waking life? Tell us about your dreams — whether they seem meaningful or meaningless. How you relate them to your waking hours. Why you remember some dreams and forget others. What dreams are.
Don’t be reluctant to reply, even if your answer seems unfinished or unpolished. We want to stress that US is not about good writing. It’s about us. We urge you to send us your ideas for future questions. And any other thoughts. Credit goes to Betsy Campbell Blackwell for conceiving of US and giving it the loving support any new project needs. Now, it’s your turn.
Names have been withheld on request.
My most painful physical experience was having orthodontic braces on my teeth for several years, having appliances lacerate the inside of my mouth.
I think of two emotionally painful experiences of equal intensity. It’s interesting because they are thematically related. The first was when I was 18. My mother was an alcoholic, and had real perceptual problems as a result of that. My mother informed my father that I was three months pregnant. I’d never had an opportunity to become pregnant at that time, but my father didn’t believe me. The most intense moment was when I realized my father hated me because of an untruth.
The other time of equal intensity was when I realized my inadequacy to meet the needs of a person I’d lived with for three years, my sexual inadequacy, when I was 24.
My most painful experience: realizing after 28 years that there is nothing I can do or say to my father to help him open up and let me in.
My father’s death. A sense of nothingness that meshed with my confusion at that time, darkened the cloud around me already.
In contrast, my complete lack of psychic, emotional pain now makes trying to pull from the past deep memories of pain so abstract. It’s really hard to move back into the intensity of feeling that surely existed then.
I’ve had lots of experiences that other folks would term awful but in fact as you become a part of the awful thing, coping puts it in a new perspective.
It is not difficult for me to select my most painful experience because it is still going on. I actually rub my own waste products on myself.
I have no clear idea why I do it, except that I suspect it is caused by guilt.
I have a psychiatrist, whom I see once a month. He is extremely bourgeois and this limits him and maintains his superficiality. He suggests that I just increase my ingestion of prolixin. Prolixin is the major tranquilizer he prescribes for me.
It happened for the first time this year. I have four children and my husband left us after he got his doctorate years ago. All the outside jobs I have had were shit. I would come home from these lousy jobs and have to do housework and give as much attention as I could to the kids. I grew to resent them, the children. My inner life, that has always been so essential to me, for I am an artist, was dying. Finally, I was laid off. I collected unemployment and the months went by. I didn’t seek another job; I made no effort; I couldn’t force myself to go back to that unbearable level of existence.
My unemployment started to run out; still, I sought no job. The car broke down and the money in the savings account was almost gone. I went into the bathroom after all the children had gone for the day, and taking a pot of feces and urine that I had saved and hidden from the morning, I climbed into the bathtub and rubbed the stuff all over me and ate it. My head started to spin and I was afraid I would faint. I was scared that I would go down the tub drain.
Even though my circumstances are better, I still do this.
My most painful experience is too painful to live through again, too painful to labor over and to record. I do not wish to put myself through that, plus I do not want it written down in black and white. I am afraid that part of me felt it was making an awfully difficult time in my life, a time I have worked on and worked out and even partially erased PERMANENT in The Sun — able to be relived and for me to be rehurt simply by picking up the magazine.
I have never handled pain well, never properly mourned. I know that I should openly express my sorrow, that in so doing I would assimilate the painful experience and move beyond it, but some time in the vague past I decided that pain was to be handled stoically (probably I read too much Hemingway in my youth) and I have not been able to change that habit. Even when others have sorrowed around me, I have not generally been able to join in. A counselor once told me, after weeks of intensive sessions, that he could not believe I had absorbed all we had gone through without breaking down. And several years ago, after a shattering personal experience, it took months of literal physical pain before I was able to admit even that something was wrong (I restrain painful feelings in my gut. I tie them there with knots).
But somehow those painful feelings incubate, and they come out finally in the stories I write. Generally I disguise the original incident until it is unrecognizable, and often I am not even aware what painful experience it is I’m dealing with. For instance, the year after I graduated from college I returned one weekend to visit some friends there, found to my sorrow that whatever common ground we had once had for friendship seemed to have vanished as our ways of life changed; a couple summers later I found myself writing a play about the same situation, but adding to it additional themes and an elaborate plot about a love affair that had never actually occurred; when readers, some years later, were asked what the play was about, they answered without hesitation, “It’s about abortion.” They were right, I suppose, but for me that play will always be about that original afternoon and the friends I seemed to have lost. Having repressed my pain, I project it on others in my stories, then feel it through them. I cannot say, as I have heard other writers claim, that the emotion is then entirely dead for me. But I have made something from it, and in that making, at least briefly, have controlled it.
All this is not to say that my stories necessarily succeed as works of art (I have not found, either, that they succeed better when the emotion is deeper or more genuine), or that they produce similar emotions in other people. But I have no answer for people who ask me why I write them, as if to say, “You think you can write a good story?” I don’t think anything of the kind, at least not while I’m writing. Good or bad doesn’t enter into it. I write them because they are there.
So I have no painful experiences to write about. I have written them all. I am like the dying Spaniard who was questioned by a priest. “Have you forgiven your enemies?” the priest asked. “I have no enemies,” the Spaniard answered. “I have shot them all.”
. . . I have been thinking about life’s cycles of joy and pain. In the light of my brand new marriage, I have realized that I have almost had to allow myself to feel my joy. It has become apparent to me that pain is easier. It has made me wonder. Do we share pain more easily than we share joy? It seems that pain type exchanges is a form of communication that works. We discuss pain, we elicit empathy, we realize others share the same pain. But it doesn’t seem to work the same way with joy. Personal joy sometimes elicits restrained reactions colored by threat or jealousy . . . This is what runs through my head. Painful experiences:
As a VISTA volunteer for two years I worked in a black ghetto in Columbus, Ohio. There was the pain of living in a poverty setting and all that that means in terms of health, food and educational resources. There was the pain of watching thirteen-year-old girls begin families just as their mothers had and all the dead-end roads that meant. The pain of the reasons they chose to do that.
The pain of my total lack of ability to truly bridge the gap between my background and theirs. It became clear to me there, (how) little I could do. I worked with teenagers and there’s no question that I loved many of them. I left after two years, having taught very little. And, I still wonder, what else can be done. How do we ever bridge these gaps in culture and class? How is it that our lives have become so complex, that essential necessities like real respect for human beings has become an intellectual game?
Or, maybe the pain of abortion. So many women could write about that and what is it we end up believing in? Trusting? I had an abortion four years ago. A quack one. The manifestations of it were horrible, mentally and physically.
My most painful experience:
Dying Of Cancer
What do you do when your beloved
is fighting a dragon
which cannot be slain?
You wash his wounds with your tears,
Wrap them with swaddling clothes,
Soften with sheepswool the floor of
And long for a sword, sharp and swift,
to slash out the heart
of this many-headed monster.
Mitchell F. Lyman
I am not reflecting upon my life experiences honestly if I identify them with superlatives. I don’t have a most painful experience. I don’t think I have a most anything. The pains are muted one by the other. The joys are muted one by the other. The pains and the joys blend and shift, and there flows a life.
Perhaps a better question for the US column would have been “What is pain?” or “What is your pain?”.
What is my pain? Why should I tell you about it? I be my pain. I breathe it. I throb it. It is easy to look past it here in this town, the blows are softened by this friendly life. Which can lead almost to a denial — a subtle one, mind you — of its existence. Pain is still there. I cry easy for the world sometimes. But you know, I hardly ever cry for myself anymore.
Why should I try to tell myself my pain? I am only more real when my pain is the heartfelt understanding of someone else’s pain. My own pain is only me alone and lopsided. Tell me your pain. I will open my heart to you. Let me feel the colors of your challenge. I will love you for the exquisite beauty of it all. Pain is beauty and pain is grace. Meister Eckhart said, “Hear this every intelligent spirit: The steed swiftest to carry you to perfection is suffering, for none shall attain eternal life except he pass through great bitterness with Christ. Nothing pierces man like suffering and nothing is more honey sweet than to have suffered.”
Pain: this is it. We are vulnerable. This is life — melting us. The ground slides from under us. We are open and vulnerable and we can be hurt in endlessly possible ways. The only real choice we ever have is a perspective to it all, an attitude. There is our only freedom. Be the pain fully. See beyond it. Know beyond it. Love beyond it. You know. Live beyond it.
Ram Dass said, “You’ve got to go the whole suffering trip. But you can’t be the guy who is suffering.”
I put the question to some friends on Christmas morning. What follows is a (more or less) verbatim account.
B: You could go two ways with the question, “What was your most painful experience.” You could think about it as feeling pain over time, or as an experience that is isolated. I think of depression when I think of pain.
A: The greatest physical pain is the one you’re experiencing in the moment.
P: If I’m depressed, a lot of other pains come up.
S: Seth talks about the pain in our cellular memories in that way.
A: Joel Kramer talks about pain. In hatha yoga you play with that edge. On an emotional level you can use pain as a tool.
V: But pain doesn’t necessary open people up.
K: Look at athletics. The world records for the mile keep going down. The runners are not near their physiological limit. They’re held back by pain.
SB: For me, in sports, there are peaks of pain, and then you go beyond it. But then you hit it again.
K: In athletics; the idea is often to ignore pain, to push past it, abuse your body. Athletes don’t live as long.
S: I go through that, pushing through the pain, pushing through the tiredness when I’m staying up a lot. I reach exhaustion. Sometimes I go through a place where I know I’ll do irreparable harm if I don’t stop there. The few times I’ve done that, I’ve paid for it.
V: Pain is so familiar to so many people it can become a kind of security. They are afraid of what they’ll experience beyond the pain.
K: When someone is hurt, in athletics, their mental attitude is important. If you think something will destroy your cells, it will. You hear stories like the one about the mother whose son is trapped under a car and lifts it by herself. If you think you can, you can.
P: In a tennis match once I became so anxious I just lost the ability to hit the ball at all.
SB: In karate, my body sometimes went beyond pain; my mind was no longer directing, the body was in harmony, functioning perfectly. The few times I did that, as soon as I realized what I was doing, I lost it.
A: Fear is painful. I trained for two weeks on jumping out of an airplane, partly because I had a fear of heights. I was so afraid, my body acted instinctively without thinking, when I jumped. With each jump, I was more aware. I performed the best the first time. As you become more aware, your mind can screw things up. For a novice, the most fearful point is right before you jump. For experienced jumpers, the fear is at its peak the night before while you’re eating dinner.
V: It’s funny how it’s easier to remember the painful times in your life over the good times.
B: I think it’s natural in some ways for you to remember pain more clearly. Pain has a psychic circle around it where for that moment you thought you were separated from something you valued, whether it’s goodness, another person, or yourself. In pain, you feel cut off. When you’re feeling joy, you feel no divisions, no outlines, you’re more whole, and not hanging on, so it’s easy to not remember it. You just are it.
SB: I’ve dreamt recently about torture. The pain had to do as much with how long I expected it to go on as the physical sensation itself.
P: When I was having the baby, I asked C. how long she thought this was going to go on, and she said, “I guess as long as you can bear it.”
A: A listener-sponsored radio station in New York once had a marathon where they played horrible music; you had to pledge money to get them to take it off.