It’s 4 p.m. and I’ve been sitting in the emergency room for 3 hours.
Last night was ladies’ night, which basically means the wives go and get some deserved, kid-free hours at the movie theater while the husbands try to keep the progeny alive at home. The good news is the kids survived.
But, why am I talking about watching the kids when I am in the emergency room? The simple answer is that I am bored. And when I am bored, I either amuse myself or I think deeply about something.
Today’s musings are brought to you by the all-encompassing, life-halting experience of debilitating back pain. If you’ve ever collapsed because the pain was so great, then you know what I mean.
The pain first manifested as I stood up from the couch to begin cooking dinner last night. I didn’t stop feeling the pain until 5:30 a.m. when I finally fell asleep.
The worst of it was when I tried to help my daughter put on her boots so we could take daddy to the hospital. I felt the jaws of life crushing my hips and spine on a level I have never felt before. I collapsed under the pain onto the floor. The pain was greater than anything I have ever felt before, so much so that I didn’t realize I had tears coming from my eyes amidst while I focused on breathing.
If I had to describe it, it’s like the crushing power in the jaws of life. You know, the jaws that cut people out of cars? Yeah, imagine getting squeezed by that.
But, why the sob story? There has to be something more. Almost there.
On the floor as the first wave of pain washed over me, I felt the surprise and panic since I was unsure when it would stop. As the first wave subsided, I had a moment of realization that I survived. That little thought was everything because in came the next wave of overwhelming pain.
I knew that if I survived the first one, then I could survive the second. That’s when I realized I was also doing what I do when I meditate, which is to observe and not interfere. That act of observance changed the way the pain felt. Don’t get me wrong. It was still there with its paralyzingly crushing feeling, but it was different.
You’ve heard it said, “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.” I absolutely believe that but what if the process of “almost being killed” could be easier? For me, that has always been a perspective shift.
Here’s one I use:
“All things work out for the good of those who are called according to His purposes.” Romans 8:28, The Bible
This verse allows me to receive any pain with the belief that I benefit from it. That benefit comes after the pain, but I have always grown as a person. Greater pain produces greater benefits.
We should never seek pain and neither should we crumble in it. Pain is the best teacher if you let it. Pain gets your attention and it always alerts you to something that needs to be improved. It’s like the blip on an opportunity radar. Here’s how to use pain to your advantage:
1. Pain reveals a problem
You never experience pain because it is a good thing intrinsically. If you cut your hand, if someone breaks your heart, if you run until your lungs burn, they all point to a problem.
Some might say that physical exercise is a good thing. Yes, it is, but the sore muscles and burning lungs are an indication of deficiency. I am not saying exercise is bad. I am saying it is good, but it doesn’t change the fact that all pain points to a problem needing some fixing.
2. Pain is a great motivator.
Our brains are wired for survival and this is not always a good thing. For example, getting up at 5 am to workout each day is not fun. It is hard, and I love sleep, so my brain actively resists me. It tells me that more sleep is healthy. It tells me that I’m not going to enjoy the workout. It tells me I might as well sleep in because I deserve it.
It lies to me because my brain wants to survive. It won’t die if I workout, but my brain is trying to conserve energy. Sleeping uses less energy than being awake so it gives me all the great reasons why sleep is good. But…
Pain overcomes those lies easily. A major contributor to my low back pain is because I haven’t been working out. At all. I told myself that my recent 30-pound weight loss meant I didn’t need to workout. My muscles are weak now and I got the pleasure of reaping those rewards.
However, my intense pain has shown me what is really important, and my brain has something more painful to focus on than getting up before dawn. The bigger threat to survival now is my gut wrenching, back-breaking physical pain. Getting up to workout is a much easier choice now. In fact, it feels like I have no choice. The greater the pain the less you feel like it is a choice to change it.
3. To sustain, you must switch from pain to purpose
Pain is a great change agent, but it is a poor habit builder unless you connect it to purpose. Purpose reminds us of why we made the change, but the why is not because of the pain. Let me explain.
Pain points to a problem. The problem is what is holding you back from something good. It is that good thing that contains the why.And it is often deeper than you think.
Think of a change you made that stuck last year. It could be more sleep, better nutrition, etc. Ask yourself what caused the change? What was the pain?
Now, ask yourself why the change stuck? I’m sure it was to stop the pain, but there is a deeper reason. A deeper why. Remember that the pain points to a problem and the problem held you back. What was it holding you back from?
Good. Now if you are like 99% of the world you just have an answer that solved an outer problem. For example, getting fit again helps me look sexy and prevents pain – outer problems. Getting fit allows me to have my freedom back – inner problem.
Being stopped dead in my tracks from overwhelming physical pain hurt, but what really mattered was that I couldn’t help my daughter put on her boots. It prevented me from being a good father and supportive husband. Not getting up before dawn decreases my ability to love and support my family.
The changes that stick become tied to a big why – a purpose – and mine is I love my family.
This is why connecting pain to purpose is so powerful. They are like two sides of a coin. Pain is the golden opportunity for you to become a better person.