I was having a conversation with a friend about pain. I said that I’ve been in so much for so long that I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t waking up to pain every day. Later, I thought, I didn’t explain that right. Because when you state that something has become your “new normal,” it sounds as if you’re saying that you are used to it. (Which is, and is not, true.)
In spite of pain being what wakes me each day, I’m still somehow surprised by the pain. Every. Single. Morning. Not in the way of not expecting it to be there, but in the way of how you cannot ever prepare to awaken into a pool of pain. Because sleep is like the white-out of ether, the black-hole of anesthesia. You can’t prepare to come out of that state, because preparation would require something you’re not in possession of – awareness.
Sometimes the pool of pain you wake up inside is shallow. Sometimes the pool is Olympic-sized. Sometimes the pool is a deep, murky lake. Sometimes the pool is the sea, that one from The Perfect Storm.
Spoiler alert for a life married to pain: There aren’t little pastel-winged dream fairies who lean in close with calming, sugarplumb-scented voices and say, “Okay, you’re fixing to wake up, now, sweetie. This is gonna be a jarring transition, so hold my hand.” (Nope, doesn’t work that way.)
In those first few heartbeats of rising to the surface of consciousness from sleep, pain’s got you cornered, pinned. Pain is basically pulling a Heisenberg on you. Which is to say, it’s an unmerciful bully, a ruthless kingpin, the kind of all-powerful warlord you do not, cannot, say No to. His stare locks onto you like a red-hot laser-beam. His voice insists, Say my name.
When I was talking to my friend the other evening, she remarked that it takes a lot of courage to live with the kind of pain I live with. I countered that it’s not courageous at all, as I have no choice in the matter. And then, this morning, in those initial moments after waking up – wherein I attempt to ease my way from the pain-free of dream life to the pain-full of real life with slow, meted, ins & outs of breath – it occurred to me that perhaps what a lot of people think of as courage is actually surrender.
Breathe in, breathe out, repeat. Allow the tide – which you cannot fight – to wash over you. Breathe in, breath out, repeat. Loosen your limbs, relax your neck and spine. Float.
Yes, it hurts. But it hurts whether you choose to flail or to float. So, breathe in, breathe out, repeat. Some pain is a current that only gets stronger, wilder, when you fight back. Better to surrender. To ride the crest of it. Which feels less like courage, more like acceptance.
What I’m trying to say, is that courage seems more the arena of swimming focused and hard, with all of your might, against a riptide. What I do – and how I think a lot of us respond in the face of pain – is not about the bold action verb of courage. I think it’s about the opposite of might. And by that I don’t mean weakness, not by any means.
The traditional idea of courage seems more like a door you fling open in a rush to help someone, or a barricade you slam shut to keep danger away. The surrender, floating and acceptance “thing” I’m talking (probably ineptly) about, that’s more of a screened door. Because your pain is never on one side of the door or the other. Your pain just is. Always. Sometimes it breezes, sometimes it gusts. Sometimes it’s a hurricane: circling, savage, relentless.
Courage seems like something you channel for unexpected “guests.” Courage feels like something you act on, something you do: lower the gate, shut the door, pull your sword and fight. Courage seems like something you use to deal with something separate from you, outside of you – an event, an enemy. Whereas surrender is something you become, something you are. Because to run away from, hide from, annihilate the pain, would be to disconnect from or do away with yourself.
I misspoke, before, when I described surrender as letting the waves wash over you. True surrender is allowing them to wash through you.
One last thought: what if courage and surrender are not two separate things?
Maybe courage and surrender are two sides of the same thing. Perhaps courage and surrender are the differing ways some other-named thing manifests itself. Depending upon the situation. Depending upon what response is required for survival.
In any case, if you are someone who happens to know pain, I wish you comfort and joy. Two things that sometimes do take courage to claim. Other times, you can just breathe in, breathe out, and surrender to them.