THE COLUMN

ISSUE NO. 66/May 11, 1996


APPROPRIATE PAIN

IVAN HOFFMAN


        If we are fortunate in our lives, we may learn to recognize appropriate pain. If we open our hearts to that pain, we can perhaps see the blessing it can bring. I suppose all pain is in some sense appropriate but it often does not seem so. Sometimes the question becomes: "What could God possibly have in mind here?" And other times we just "get it" and understand what the pain is about. As such, if we learn from the pain, it is appropriate pain. Any pain that teaches is appropriate pain.

        We shy away from most pain because, well, because it is painful. That seems axiomatic but it is the very depth of pain that can create the blessing. Perhaps the deeper the pain the more significant is the lesson, the learning experience it can bring. This is, I imagine, one of the reasons we have the cliché that says "God works in mysterious ways." Pain is often the best if indeed not the only teacher. Changing ourselves is so very difficult that we are willing to let go of who we are and become someone else only when the pain is simply unbearable. It seems no one changes when things are wonderful.

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        Airports bring out the loneliness in my heart. They also bring out the leap of adventure that resides there. But mostly they rip open the vulnerability of my soul. I have been a traveler, a flyer, since the early 1950's and some of my most painful moments have occurred at airports. I have shed many tears inside lonely lounges.

        My two sons were in town a couple of weeks ago. We had not all been in one city at one time for nearly two years. And the week was wonderful. It was like friends spending time together. And then, in a millisecond, they left. And when I was sitting at the airport, my loneliness returned--the loneliness of when I was a child, bouncing between New York and Los Angeles and waiting with one of my parents for my plane to leave and take me to the other. And the ripping open of my heart last week was as painful as it used to be then.

        When parents say to their children "Just wait until you're a parent!," the children cannot imagine the parent's pain until they are themselves parents. I couldn't as a child. Now I can. I do not know if my children experience the pain of separation from us, their parents and grandmother, in the same way as a parent does. I didn't as a child. We can only know pain from our own place until we experience it from another place. Another axiom. And since my children, like me as a child, can only know what they know to that moment in their lives, they have no reference for another version of life, of leaving, of pain.

        I have been fortunate because my pain of seeing my children leave is appropriate. I have come to see it as such because it has taught me things. It has opened wounds of loneliness that had scarred over since my childhood. It has enabled me to see my parent's pain when I left. It has enabled me to understand their love as love for before I did not know that it was love. I did not know that it was love because I did not know what love looked like when I was a child. When I left, I did not experience their pain. I experienced my own version of pain but it was not a parent's pain. It was a child's pain. Qualitatively different. Not less. Not more. Just different. It was then the only pain I could understand for I had not yet been a parent and experienced a parent's pain.

        I feel that I have been gifted with the pain of seeing my two sons grow and move away. Of course it hurts terribly when they leave. But I have been gifted by being given a parallel event in my life so that I could see the same event from the distance of many years and different roles.

        This pain is appropriate because I believe that we must know all sides of ourselves if we are to reach spiritual intimacy, that total connection to God, to ourselves, that is known as enlightenment. We must become completely selfless, without separation from our hearts. And for me, the pain of seeing my children leave has enabled me to see more of who I am because it has made me understand more about my parents. It has enabled me to see the parent side of me being much different than the child side of me. It has enabled me to see the arc of my life set out before me, if from the inside of air conditioned airport terminals. Without the pain, I would not know these parts of myself. Quite painful but appropriate.

God works in mysterious ways.

© 1996 Ivan Hoffman


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