EXAMINED LIFE It’s winter and it’s dark out and we’re approaching the holiday season, so … I want to talk about being uncomfortable. I like to talk about discomfort because it’s real and it’s non-negotiable, and we make most of the choices in our lives based on a perceived avoidance of it.
Like anyone, I’ve been tasked to make some big decisions in my life. But, for the moment, I want to talk about a very small one.
Two years ago, I went on a solo weeklong vacation to a retreat center in Hawaii because I was in deep need of rest. For the first time in my adult life, I had no agenda but to enjoy the weather, sleep copious amounts, and eat good food. For the first 6 days, I faithfully toted around a worn copy of Alan Watts’ This is It from the dining room to the poolside, and read about the perfection of imperfection in between chowing on farm-to-table lasagna, petting stray kittens, and lazily paddling around in the pool. I didn’t talk to anyone because I had decided to keep the week for myself.
On my final day, while sitting in the clothing-optional communal hot tub (in which I was the only one who ever opted for clothing), I found myself in a conversation with a local guy who offered to take me on a motorcycle ride around the island later that day. I said yes (because: motorcycle tour in Hawaii!). But as soon as I walked away, I felt a pit in my belly. The pit grew larger. The more I contemplated it, the more I realized: I really didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to navigate the safety precautions, or deal with the possibility that there was a romantic intention on his part, or take away from my precious time alone on my last day there. But … I also didn’t want to turn down the generous offer, stand this person up, or hurt his feelings by telling him I had changed my mind. The Didn’t Wants blended into a well-trained but uninspiring internal chorus until there I was, laying in an old rope hammock on a sun-drenched day in Hawaii, beside myself with anxiety. There didn’t seem to be a single decent choice.
This story is insignificant because, really, who cares that I had a first-world-problem meltdown in a hammock in Hawaii over an unwanted motorcycle ride? Yet, this story is significant because it points to the fact that even in the most optimal conditions (like Hawaii and hot tubs), our minds can begin scanning for a painless solution to a problem. And when it can’t find a painless solution (because maybe there isn’t one), it will just keep scanning and scanning. For a small problem, like this one, the scanning might go on for a few hours; with a larger problem, it could go on for months or years.
Our minds do all this scanning to avoid pain. But, of course, we can’t avoid pain. We all know that our bodies and feelings are engineered to get hurt, that the loveliest conversation with a close friend can make us feel lonely when it ends, and that snow and clothing are pretty when they are new and disdainful when they are dirty. Even if you’re fortunate enough to have a body that is generally in good working order, it still gets uncomfortable. Every time you shift your position in your seat, you’re doing that because your body hurts. Same when you change positions when you sleep. Hunger is painful. Overeating is painful. Being alone is painful. Being with people is painful. Experiencing injustice is painful. Unintentionally harming someone else is painful. If you’re a morning person, evenings are painful; if you’re an evening person, mornings are painful. If you are a depressed person, knowing that pain exists is painful. If you are an anxious person, thinking about how much more painful things can get is painful.
And yet, we spend the bulk of our lives searching for a path where we won’t feel pain. Unpleasant feeling? Eat a cookie. Drink a beer. Binge-watch Stranger Things. Say something mean about someone else, and then say you meant nothing mean by it. Order some edible antioxidant face cream on Amazon. Lie instead of facing the truth. Pick up your phone to see if you got a new message. Put it down. Pick it up again. Put it down again. Eat another cookie. You’d think all of this running from pain would lead to a happier life, right? But unfortunately all it means is that we continue to have unpleasant experiences, with the addition of a lot of unpleasant running.
Of course, sometimes we are in immediate danger (or the train is leaving the station) and running is appropriate. But what if, the rest of the time, we take a moment to grok the fact that it’s all going to hurt, and decide for ourselves which type of pain we want to take on? When we look to the future, we often hold two possibilities: one of hope for joy and pleasure, and the other for fear of loss and uncertainty. What if we looked to the future and held the possibility of choosing the discomfort of discipline, growth, and possible rejection over the discomfort of feeling unfulfilled, stagnant, and isolated.
What if we stopped to realize that the most important things in life quite predictably hurt? Paying attention hurts. Loving someone deeply hurts. Committing to a project that may or may not be successful hurts. Waking up to meditate every morning hurts. Being a good parent hurts. Turning off your electronics for a day hurts. Disentangling yourself from a toxic job or relationship hurts. Standing up for yourself hurts. Standing up for others hurts. Closing a door so a new one can open hurts. Lots of important things hurt. If we understand this on a visceral level, we can deliberate less, and make wise, if uncomfortable, choices. And there’s a bonus: If we can tolerate the pain inherent in the thing we are choosing, we can also experience the pleasurable feelings of decisiveness, courage and integrity that accompany a good, but hard decision.
Thinking back on that day in Hawaii, my mind’s real flaw was believing there should be an easy answer, an option that didn’t hurt. When I finally stopped searching for a choice that was painless, I was able to see that I only had three painful options to choose from. One was to go on the motorcycle ride I didn’t want to go on. The other was to simply not show. The third was to go to the meeting spot and tell this person I had decided to spend my last evening on the island alone.
I chose the third one, which means I chose the pain of disappointing someone over the pain of doing something I didn’t want to do and the pain of lacking integrity by ghosting. And yeah, it did hurt—I don’t like to disappoint people. But it also made me summon the courage to be authentic and truthful, which was profoundly pleasurable. I then took a spacious solo drive around the whole region and watched the sun set over the ocean, my mind relaxed and free.
As we move toward the end of the year—into holiday parties, the glory (or lack thereof) of family communing, and the reckoning of a year coming to a close—many of us will be tasked with decisions small and large. Will you avoidantly pull the cover over your head in the dark morning hours, or will you face the pain of rising and meditating or exercising before work? Will you drown in a bottle of wine any unsettled feelings about the year, or will you face them head on with reflection and wisdom? Will you choose the pain of hiding in your phone during a difficult conversation with someone you care about, or will you choose the pain of trying to connect despite the difficulty? Even if you’re not changing jobs or moving this year, you are constantly making decisions. Instead of always searching for the option that doesn’t hurt, choose the option that most aligns with your values. And be prepared to feel some pain and grief—and then a taste of freedom.