There are essentially three ways of dealing with pain. We can attempt to avoid it, we can get stuck in it, or we can move directly into it and through it.
Our culture, however, values only the first of these approaches. Whenever we encounter pain, grief, or trauma in our lives, we fill encounter great pressure (both from others and from within to the degree that we have been influenced by cultural norms) to keep a stiff upper lip, move through it quickly, and get back to normal as soon as possible.
One of the values of the metaphor of kintsugi is that it teaches a better way to handle the inevitable pain of life.
To better understand how this is the case, I want to take a look at all three methods of dealing with pain to better illustrate why the way that the kintsugi metaphor teaches stands out.
Avoiding the pain
This first method is the one that we are all most familiar with as a cultural norm.
We admire those who go through painful or traumatic experiences with stoic-like exteriors, never demonstrating any sign of their grief or pain for anyone to see. We call that courageous and hold it up as the optimal way for us all to emulate.
There are many ways in which we go about this avoidance.
We numb ourselves with food and drink, with shopping, with entertainment, and with any other distraction or addiction you can imagine.
We deny our emotions and refuse to let ourselves feel them.
Most of all, we try to crowd out any possibility of dealing with the pain by keeping ourselves too busy to deal with it.
There are, of course, times when we have no choice about engaging in this approach. We often have responsibilities (like child-rearing) that require us to function even in the midst of deep pain, so we have to keep going even when it hurts. There are also times when we need a break from dealing with the pain, and a small vacation from it can allow us to regain our strength to tackle it again.
But using this approach as an adjunct to healthier ways of dealing with pain is a very different thing that whole-heartedly diving into avoidance as many of us have been taught to do.
The problem with this avoidance, of course, is that we just store up all that pain inside of us where it waits just under the surface for another chance to make itself known. It influences us in ways we don't even recognize and slowly poisons our lives and relationships as the pain oozes out in uncontrollable ways from where we've hidden it away.
For all of our valuing of this approach as a society, it has an ugly underbelly that leaves us paying the cost for a long time.
Wallowing in the pain
At the other end of the spectrum is the approach of wallowing in the pain. Our cultural norms gives us a fairly strong abhorrence to this approach, but most of still know someone who has chosen this pathway.
In this approach, the person enters fully into the experience of the pain and stays there. The pain (and often the experience that originally caused it) gradually takes over the person's entire identity.
People stuck in this approach tell and re-tell their stories of injury to anyone who will listen. The story never changes, and the person stuck in this place is unwilling to let it go to move on toward healing because they have forgotten (or never knew) that they are more than the pain.
Unfortunately, our cultural value of avoiding of pain makes it hard for most of us to treat others (or ourselves) with very much compassion and kindness when this happens, which often increases the likelihood that they will continue to stay stuck.
In fact, our resistance to this approach often causes us to accuse others (and ourselves) of wallowing at the slightest indication that someone is allowing themselves to fully feel and explore their pain. Our fear of getting stuck here keeps us from allowing and valuing healthy ways of dealing with pain as well.
Using pain as fuel
This third way of approaching life's pain takes us into the pain and out the other side into healing and growth.
In this approach, our pain becomes the fuel that motivates us to do the hard work of healing, which often requires uncomfortable change and risk, as a way of using whatever has happened to us for our personal growth.
This is by far the most challenging of the approaches (which is why it is the least used), but it also holds the potential for the greatest rewards.
One of the challenges we encounter when we try to pursue this approach is that the first step involves moving directly into the experience of the pain. As we do that, it tends to look similar to wallowing, particularly in our culture that has such a strong aversion to anything that remotely resembles wallowing.
There are key differences, however. In this approach, a person may keep telling the story of what happened to them, but instead of staying stuck in it, the story continues to deepen and shift as they explore other perspectives and excavate their own patterns in interaction and in meaning-making.
While they may spend time experiencing the pain, it is not a place of being stuck, and it is definitely not a place of identification with the pain. It is an active exploration of the pain and the story that places them in the role of explorer rather than a role of victim.
I've written before about the challenges and discomfort of the process of kintsugi and how that relates to the discomfort of healing. Kintsugi is a long process with many steps that (traditionally) involve the use of a toxic lacquer and much scraping, sanding, and waiting before the powdered gold is ever introduced.
When we undertake the approach of using our pain as fuel for our growth and healing, we undertake a similarly uncomfortable and prolonged process as we work toward the gold at the end of the pathway.
Several years ago when my life completely fell apart on every possible level, this desire to use my pain as fuel to grow and learn and change was what kept me going. I could see how my past refusals to deal deeply with previous painful situations had contributed to what I was currently experiencing.
I decided that I might not have a choice about the pain that I had been handed, but I did have a choice about how I used it. I was determined above all else to make use of the pain as an intense motivation to change my less-than-helpful patterns and life stories to make sure I didn't recreate the same kind of situation again.
There were many around me who dismissed my approach (and me) as just wallowing, so I walked much of that journey alone, but it has been worth it. I came through the other side with more growth and learning than I've ever experienced in any other time in my life.
And that has become my gold.
Likewise, life will serve up pain in your life sooner or later as well. You don't have a choice about the pain, but you do have a choice about how you use it.
Will you spend your effort trying to avoid your pain and thereby keep it close by under the surface where it will influence you unconsciously?
Will you choose to allow your pain to become your identity so that you can't see beyond it?
Or will you use it as fuel to drive your exploration, excavation, and transformation of your life to make your pain work for you in creating something better?
It's your choice!
Questions to ponder
What approaches have you tried in the past? How have they worked for you?
How have others reacted to your attempts to use these different approaches?
How have you reacted to yourself as you've tried these different approaches?
What do you need to help you choose a more kintsugi-like approach to your pain to aim for healing that is filled with gold? How could you get that help and support?
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