What You Can Learn From Pain

I rarely stop to read feature stories focused on health issues, but a pullout quote in a recent article in The New York Times Magazine stopped me cold:

"Her life story offers an amazing snapshot of how complicated a life can get without the guidance of pain. Pain is a gift, and she doesn't have it."


The story by Justin Heckert was about 13-year-old Ashlyn Blocker, who was diagnosed with congenital insensitivity to pain. A geneticist, Geoffrey Woods, after learning about a boy with this disorder who died after jumping off a roof to entertain his friends, said, "I realized that pain had a different meaning than I had thought. He didn't have pain behavior to restrain him." Further, "it makes you realize pain is there for a number of reasons, and one of them is to use your body correctly without damaging it and modulating what you do."

As I turned the pages on this article, I couldn't stop thinking about all the parents in the world who have expressed the very natural desire to shield their children from pain. Surely this isn't what they had in mind.

It made me wonder how many other perfectly understandable wishes are, at their base, misguided and how we have no way of knowing.

Sometimes it just feels like all we can do is surrender. And I mean that in the best possible way. The more wrung out we feel, the closer we are to some kind of light. I like believing that.

There is a point in the sweeping grandeur of the film Life of Pi where Pi, stranded in the ocean on a lifeboat with a tiger and having survived so very much that is unthinkable, stands up with his arms raised as a storm tosses his humble vessel and screams that God must do with him what he will. This, after days and weeks finding resourceful and miraculous ways to survive circumstances that few would or could.

I will not tell you God's answer, so no spoiler alert is necessary. What I will say is I think people will learn a bit about themselves as they watch this movie. Sitting in the theater next to my brother, he marveled at how my strongest recoiling reaction came when a rat crawled on the boat. I kept full-body cringing and averting my eyes.

"A ship sank and all this is going on and THAT did it for you?" he asked, kind of amused.

It was a sibling moment. He was right. Amazing what we fear most, huh? Or what proves to be our breaking point.

What I loved about this movie is also what I loved about the book when I read it around 2002. I was in the midst of some great life challenges then and it was part of a spiritual awakening for me. I made a point of seeing the film in its opening weekend because this year has also brought its share of pain and circumstances that feel like they come with lofty messages to be carried forward. We go on a compelling fantasy adventure with author Yann Martel in the book and now, through the lens of director Ang Lee, our emotions dip and crest as we gaze and gasp at the awe and wrath of nature.

It left me breathless in spots, happy for a burst of sunshine or calm waters so I could breathe again.

Isn't this, ideally, like emerging from pain and hardship? It's the only way to the dawn, isn't it? Really, it's the only way to know the dawn from the darkness.

As the 13-year-old girl who feels no pain illustrates, it's not something to be shielded from. It's something to ... what? Be grateful for? At what point do we make that leap from hurt to gratitude? It varies, of course.

Then again, what if we don't make that leap at all? Perhaps that's where the real danger comes in. A circling shark in the water? Or a Bengal tiger in your lifeboat? Pick your pain.

"One moment you are feeling calm, self-possessed, happy," Martel writes in Life of Pi. "Then fear, disguised in the garb of mild-mannered doubt, slips into your mind like a spy."

It's calling. Nagging. Eventually, somehow, open your heart. Dig into your deepest well where you cultivated a reverence for life in more blessed times and look into the tiger's eyes. Believe you see its soul.

Then what?

Realize the pain, as the geneticist said, isn't just there to hurt you. It could be there to strengthen you or even to save you. It reminds you that you're living, breathing, feeling.

As the year 2012 comes to a close and I review its searing challenges, I keep trying to remember this. It buoys me and soothes me. My way, as readers of this column well know, is to extract lessons. These are mine, from Life of Pi and beyond.

How about yours? I'd love to hear them.

Nancy Colasurdo is a practicing life coach and freelance writer. Her Web site is www.nancola.com and you can follow her on Twitter @nancola. Please direct all questions/comments to FOXGamePlan@gmail.com.