Life is Full of Pain, Get Used to It

Siberian fritillary

UNSPECIFIED – JANUARY 03: Siberian fritillary (Fritillaria pallidiflora), Liliaceae. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Last Friday evening my wife and I attended a seminar, Loving Without Limits,  a discussion and practice on meditation led by Thomas Wirthlin McConkie. McConkie is a shining star among liberal mormons because for one, his  back-story  is so interesting. He’s the grandson of the formal apostle Joseph B. Wirthlin, and grand-nephew to another former apostle Bruce R. McConkie.  His family is deeply entrenched within the Mormon elite. But at 13, he couldn’t take it anymore and stopped going to church. This was not handled well within his family and in their attempts to intervene, they created deep wounds that drove him even further from both his family and the church. Some time after high school, feeling isolated and hurt by his family, he found Buddhism and eventually fled to China to pursue an immersion in this tradition. In his mid-thirties, he felt inspired to come back, both to his family in Utah and to Mormonism, bringing his Buddhism with him. Now he’s a fully active, re-connected, non-traditional Mormon with a very deep footing in meditation and mindfulness and he’s bring this into the Mormon community.

I love McConkie. I’ve heard him speak a few times now, on a podcast and twice in person. He has a calm voice and a balanced, centered outlook on life that is both deeply positive and connecting. Not only that, he has this uncanny ability to  remember everyone’s name.  I have his book, but have not yet finished it. This is the person my wife and I spent a couple of hours with on a Friday evening.

One idea that came up during his presentation was an idea that I’ve already been pondering a lot lately, the idea that we need to find a way to be at peace within our pain and discomfort.  And that as we learn to do so, we can find peace and even joy. This idea that pain can lead to joy is at the core of Christianity in fact. It’s central to the mission of Jesus Christ – that he was willing to suffer excruciating pain – willingly taking on the burdens and agonies of the world’s sins in what is known as the atonement of Christ. And that it’s through suffering we find redemption from our sins and a return back to peace and rest with God. In our session, we practiced in our meditation to notice our pains, discomforts, everything our body was feeling and to sit still in it. It was a serene, beautiful experience.

I’m terrible with pain. I hate being uncomfortable. For anyone that has known me over the years, I’m sure you’ve noticed that I’ve gained some weight. I’ve never been good with food.When I was young my parents were poor, food was scarce and my mom wasn’t really great in the kitchen. Our meals were usually meager. A real childhood treat was the fairly regular church activity pot-lucks. Our contributions were embarrassing usually, but I salivated over what others brought, waiting impatiently for the opening prayer to end and the lines to form. I’d pile my plate high with all of this food that I would normally not have the opportunity to eat otherwise.

Another food related highlight of my early life was going with my mom to the “day-old” bakery to get bread. There would always be a rack of hostess goodies and I would beg and eventually get my pick at these. I developed a taste for one of the worse for you snacks imaginable, hostess ding-dongs, twinkies, fruit pies, and zingers.

Leaving for college for the first time food was a source of comfort when I was lonely and I was often lonely, especially pre-mission years. I would walk over to the circle k and get a box of chocolate donuts and eat the entire box. Fortunately, I was blessed with a good metabolism, a healthy love for sports and a bike I would ride around quite a bit. I’m sure I gained weight in college, but I was able to stay skinny.

But all of this catches up to you eventually. I’ve aged, my metabolism has slown down, I have a desk job and I’ve added layers of stress as my responsibilities and pressures have grown. One particularly difficult time in my life happened five years ago, when my dad suffered a stroke, was hospitalized and eventually transitioned to a group home. My mom and her aspergers did not handle this well and neither did I. I ate my way through that difficult experience.

So, I’ve gained weight and I want to lose it. I want to be healthier and slimmer, but most importantly I want a healthier relationship with food. This is difficult and not just because of my own inability to cope with my life. The food industry has conspired against me and the rest of us, to make managing our eating difficult.

Here’s the insight that I’m hoping will help me to do this – that life is full of pain and I just need to get over myself and face it, head on. I’ve been hearing this message from multiple sources. Adam Miller in the introduction to his paraphrase of Ecclesiastes says it this way:

In Ecclesiastes, this hopelessness takes a number of forms. Satisfaction, for one, is hopeless. Satiety is a mirage. The world is inadequate to our immoderate desires. The book’s narrator has, he insists, tried everything. Solomonic, he has reigned as a king, accumulated all wisdom, achieved all forms of worldly success, and exhausted every form of pleasure. Wealth, sex, drugs, beauty, skill, power, knowledge – he has drained all these cups to the dregs. And what did he find? He found nothing that endures, nothing that is substantial, nothing that could satisfy. At the bottom of every cup he found the same thing: life insatiable and time inexorable. Hunger is eternal. This truth is hard to concede but, having seen it, he wants to show it. Satisfaction is a lure and any life caught on this hopeful hook will be filled with frustration and disappointment. Lives lived in hope of satisfaction inevitably unfold as a kind of death, as a kind of half-life in which people never quite start living – always waiting, always hoping, forever suspended between what they want and what they don’t have. This is spiritual death.

And the philosopher Alain de Botton says something similar quite beautifully here:

The wisdom of the melancholy attitude (as opposed to the bitter or angry one) lies in the understanding that the sorrow isn’t just about you, that you have not been singled out, that your suffering belongs to humanity in general. So often our sorrows are egocentric. We see them as special misfortunes which have come our way. Melancholy rejects this. It has a wider, much less personal take. Much of what is painful and sorrowful in our lives can be traced to general things about life: its brevity; the fact that we cannot avoid missing opportunities, the contradictions of desire and self-management. These apply to everyone. So melancholy is generous. You feel this sorrow for others too, for ‘us’. You feel pity for the human condition.

This idea that meloncholy, sadness, loss, regret, none of this is unique to me. It’s what we were born to experience. Our lives are so short, are bodies are changing and growing old and breaking down and simply we are forced to decide. We begin life with an infinite number of possibilities, with each passing day, our possibilities narrow. Our hopes and dreams are tampered down until our lives end and we literally lose everything. The key thing here is can we take it.

Now back to food. What I’m trying to do is to learn to live with my hunger. Part of my problem with food is that I’m not good at being hungry. At the first sign of hunger, I try to suppress it. I’m also not good with food. If there’s food available, I’ll eat it even when I’m not hungry. Now I want to deliberately bring myself to hunger multiple times a day. I want to go to bed hungry. I want to be hungry before each meal. And at my meals, I don’t want to necessarily replace my hunger with feeling completely full. I want to eat to meet that hunger, hopefully slowly, mindfully and with appreciation. And I want this to be a habit for me the rest of my life.

I’m not sure this will lead to weight loss, I’m not even sure I’ll succeed. I’m sure I’ll have good days and bad. But I’m hoping over the long-run it will lead to fewer calories consumed and an over-all healthier life.