On a recent shift it seemed like 90% of the calls we ran stemmed from emotional pain. Some patients made themselves physically sick with it while others let their pain morph into such complete destructiveness that they endangered themselves and took the life of an innocent. In Fire and EMS we witness intense suffering and as human beings we will all experience it in our own lives. Life is pain and pain can lead us in two directions: toward compassion and wisdom or anger and hardness. To light or darkness. It is a choice, one of the most important we will ever make, to decide which direction we will allow our pain to go.
Some of the most shining examples of compassion and wisdom come from people who have suffered terribly. Maya Angelou is my inspiration. When she was eight-years old, her mother’s boyfriend, Mr. Freeman, sexually abused and raped her. Maya confided in her brother whom she was very close with and he told the rest of the family. Although Freeman was found guilty, he served only one day in jail. Shortly after his release, in a dramatic example of small town Southern justice, Angelou’s uncles murdered him. This so traumatized Angelou that she didn’t speak for five years.
“I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone . . . ”
That was not the end of Angelou’s traumas. In her early years of womanhood before becoming an acclaimed dancer, writer, actress, filmmaker, professor, and presidential inaugural poet, Maya Angelou worked as a pimp and prostitute. One afternoon, her boyfriend beat her nearly to death then imprisoned her for days in his unknown apartment until her mother with two of her toughest nightclub employees broke his door down and rescued her daughter. Yet in spite of the abuse Angelou experienced in her formative years, she grew into a woman and writer of uncommon wisdom and compassion.
Pain is the great teacher.
Pain is the great teacher. It makes us stronger. It leaves scars but we are tougher because of them. By facing our pain, we grow wiser and more resilient. This is a choice. It doesn’t happen by accident. Everyday we make choices that lead us farther down our path, such as how do we talk to people, how much do we drink, what do we watch on TV, how do we spend our time? Do our activities and behavior lead us toward self-awareness or delusion? As Ruth Gordon said, “Courage is like a muscle; it is strengthened by use.” Almost nothing will take more courage than facing our own suffering.
We all know someone in our profession who has become embittered and hardened, and we run on people drowning in their pain every day. We can learn from them. Have you ever noticed how the ones who scream the loudest have the thinnest skin? The ones who act the hardest are really the most scared. It’s a self-defense mechanism. Becoming hard is easy. So is giving up. It is the path of least resistance. Opening and connecting is the far more difficult path. It may mean more pain is coming, but no matter what we do, pain will come.
I’ve had my share of pain. There have been times when I didn’t know how I would survive. Just to breathe hurt. To be alive felt like too much to bear. I have sought relief in my share of distractions. Lately for me it’s a book or a TV show. Sometimes itâ€™s easier to lose myself in someone else’s story than to face my own, but I have studied Buddhism and meditation long enough to recognize when I’m doing this. It’s perfectly natural to turn away for a moment. Sometimes we need a break. The problem arises when we do this every time discomfort arises. Then hiding becomes a habit.
We will all lose someone we love or suffer a shattering betrayal. Catastrophic failures will occur. For some violence, abuse, and oppression will arise. The only control we truly have in life is how we respond. If we bury our demons and ignore our pain we are on a sure path to a life of desperation. But, if we embrace our suffering with awareness and compassion, eventually it will soften and loosen its grasp. That’s when the light seeps in and the wisdom takes hold.
I’ve known darkness and I chose the light.
“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”
1. Maya Angelou, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Ballantine Books http://mayaangelou.com/bio/