Life is Pain — It’s also Sublime. Remember Both
It was one o’clock in the morning. I’d been outside with our cute, demonic seven-month-old Havanese puppy named Loki for forty minutes. I was already exhausted.
This was Loki’s first trip anywhere. We’d taken him to our favorite beach for the weekend. He was not adjusting well.
I’d been up most of the night before with restless children. My son had a series of night terrors. One of my daughters was struggling to sleep in a strange place. My wife had dealt with our dog who had suddenly forgotten how to sleep, eat, poop, and pee.
With both secretly thought the other had gotten the better deal and so we readily agreed to switch the next night.
Loki had been sniffing everything on the street for a full forty-minutes, but he had not yet found a place worthy of his urine.
I was getting angry. “Just piss!” I whisper-shouted at the dog.
Loki ignored me.
Why was life still so hard?
I had recently lost two bids on projects I wanted. I had a lot of work I had to get done the next day. I should’ve already finished the projects, but I had put them off in favor of helping my middle schoolers complete their mountains of homework their teachers had piled on the week before Thanksgiving break.
I was worried about our finances. The end of the year is always a crap shoot for my freelance writing business.
A few of my other passive income ventures had failed to deliver me the returns I wanted — that now I needed.
Loki paused from his sniffing and shivered. I shivered too. I hadn’t brought a jacket. In my arrogance, I assumed the dog would quickly void his bladder, and we could go back inside and sleep.
We looked at each other. I shook my head, and he put his nose back to the ground.
That’s when I first saw the moon. It was hovering over the ocean. It’s light kissing the surface of the water, rippling across the surface.
How had I not seen it before now? In the past forty minutes, I’d been too consumed with self-pity, to look at anything but the ground.
My fears and anger were pushed out of my mind by the sublime beauty of our local cosmic neighbor.
Loki led me across the street, away from the moon. I kept my gaze skywards.
With my back to the moon, I could see the stars. These distant balls of nuclear combustion are nothing like the stars at home — too much light pollution.
Here next to the ocean, even with the bright moon, you can see so many more layers of stars than you ever see in the city. Like one of the puzzle books, the more I stared into the sky, the more clearly, I could see the pictures hidden there.
Loki tugged at the leash. He wanted to go in, even though his bladder was still full.
I no longer cared. I happily stayed up a few more hours.
Living Beyond the Now
In the moment before the moon intervened, I was telling myself a great story. Poor, pitiful me. Life is still such a struggle, even after working so hard for six years.
The truth is, I’m blessed to live a life of my own construction. I was at the beach, even though I had work to do, because I have the means to travel and take my family. I was at the beach because I can work from almost anywhere. I was at the beach!
I have lived with much worse: The death of family members; the cataclysmic destruction of a career; severe mental health issues; painful betrayals.
But, in the moment I had forgotten all that I had gone through and overcome. I lied to myself in that moment that the pain I was feeling was the worst pain. But, it wasn’t even close.
Day-to-day I rarely think of the anguish I’ve been through.
To paraphrase one of the best lines ever written by the late William Goldman, “Life is pain, and anyone who tries to tell you differently is selling you something.”
Except, life isn’t just pain. It’s also made up of small moments of the sublime.
The moon, the ocean, and the stars gave me an indelible memory. Our world is filled with wonders if we are willing to look around.
Shallow Emotional Memory
I’m forty-two. I still have a lot of life to live. But, I’ve seen enough to know that I will always have problems. There will always be suffering.
I also know that as humans, our emotional memory is shallow. We tend to forget what the greatest joys and the deepest sorrows actually feel like. Those memories are still inside of us, but in the day-to-day hustle and bustle of life, our brains only focus on our feelings in the moment.
I’ve learned that unless I take time to reflect, I feel like everything in the moment is the best or the worst. That’s how we’re wired. But, that’s also why gratitude, meditation, journaling, and other mindful practices are so beneficial. They help restore our sense of perspective.
Life is good. I’m still worried about how the end of the year is going to shape up. Like everyone else, I have real problems. I also have real occasions for joy.
My current problems aren’t the worst I’ve ever been through. Forcing myself to remember my past pain, in the proper perspective, allows me to see my current problems more clearly. Recognizing the small, wonders of each day helps to remain emotionally balanced. Thinking back on my greatest triumphs gives me hope.
I’ve never bought into stoicism. I’ve also never believed that we should pretend like we’re happy all of the time.
Instead, we should learn to recognize each emotion and work to see it in perspective. All of our sorrows and our joys shape us. They can help us escape our shallow emotional memories that keep us chained to the moment and prevent us from moving forward.
When we fake happiness or wallow in self-pity we do ourselves, our friends, and our families a disservice. We contribute to the false narrative that life is only one thing. Life is pain. Life is sublime. We need both to grow and become better people.
It’s okay to feel angry, hurt, and sad. But, remember that even when you are feeling at your worst, there is another side to life. Take the time to look up and try and find the sublime It’s there to remind you that life is dynamic. There are small joys that will give you a few minutes of respite, so you have the strength to get through your personal worst.
When life is going well, remember the hard times. It will keep you humble. Humility is a prerequisite for knowledge.
Life is pain. Life is sublime. Both are true. Carry both with you as you live your life.