Friday, October 08, 2010

The Positive Side of Pain

The Positive Side of Pain

Have you ever accidentally smashed your finger with a hammer or slammed it in a car door? I think most people have.

I remember years ago when I was 11-years-old, I was in the backyard of a neighbor's house and observing his old pickup truck. It was one of those old trucks that had an unusual hood. It was hinged down the middle and you could only open one side at a time. If one side was already open and you tried to open the opposite side, the open side would slam shut. How do I know this? Well, I learned the hard way.

As I was looking at the old truck, I had my hands on the frame while peering into the engine compartment. Suddenly one of my friends decided to open the other side. Upon doing so, the hood on my side slammed down and caught one of my fingers. In that brief second one of my life's lesson was over.

I'm writing about it today because I'm constantly reminded of that day. You see, ever since then I've had a fingernail, that if allowed to grow out, splits and snags on my jeans every time I put my hands in my pocket. There's a very small, almost invisible line down the middle of the nail which represents a dead nerve. If I don't keep it clipped short, I eventually am reminded of that painful day.

Most of us have some scar or injury that reminds us of a life's lesson. My son has a scar on top of his left hand when at the age of 3 he decided to test the temperature of a curling iron. My daughter has a scar up the back of her skull from brain surgery at the age of 7. (The good news is, they found her brain. The bad news is, it looks a lot like mine.)

The question I have for you today is this. What do your scars remind you of and what benefit have they given you? Do you have scars that constantly cause emotional pain? Are you living with a constant reminder of a failure or a disappointment in your life? How about what you see in the faces of those who've hurt you? Does their likeness keep reminding you of an unpleasant experience, betrayal, or mistrust? Are there people in your life that you'd consider to be a scar in the tapestry of your life's lessons? Is there a person who caused you emotional pain and thus to this day they're like the fingernail I have to keep dealing with?

I don't think about my fingernail every day and my son or daughter don't think about their scars every day. But occasionally we do. Occasionally something reminds us of the pain. It's at that moment I'm given the opportunity to define for myself what that scar and that pain is all about in my day-to-day life. Is there a benefit to this scar or has it become a curse?

Scars and painful experiences have two sides to them. On the positive side, they often teach us what not to do - ever again. On the negative side, they can also keep us from thriving or from trying again. Some of us have had disappointing marriages, careers or friendships that have been destroyed by the pain caused from a bad experience. We've decided to never remarry, not seek a promotion, or refuse to open ourselves up to a new friendship. For some of us, scars and pain have brought us to a standstill and we never open an engine compartment again.

The truth is, we learn best from pain because pain registers in our brain like no other experience. People learn more from mistakes than they do from successes. We seem to be wired for the impact that pain brings to our memory and change in behavior. If I tell an audience about the painful lessons I've gone through in life, I'm instantly connected to every person. We all have some kind of pain riding just under the surface of our smile. Nobody is exempt from mistakes, unfortunate circumstances and failures.

However, on the flip side if I start to share my victories, my successes, my stories of hanging with millionaires and billionaires, 50% of the audience shifts to half throttle, 30% glaze over, and the rest will start to completely shut me off because they can't relate at all. Some people enjoy hearing my stories about what few successes I've had while some don't. Even I don't always enjoy hearing myself tell the stories of an achievement. But if I tell you about my pain, you're right there with me. People don't want to hear how you made a million dollars as much as they want to know how you survived when you were flat broke. Why? Because we can all relate to the latter.

The positive side of pain is that it connects all of us if we're willing to share our stories. It's what would cure the world of prejudices if people were not afraid of telling their stories and opening themselves to experience and shared empathy. I can instantly empathize with your pain but I may have a difficult time feeling good about your success. That being said, it's amazing how many of us spend our introductory minutes when meeting someone new by telling others of our job title, our recent vacation to Hawaii or the gated community we live in with luxury cars and swimming pools. We seem to feel better by assuming others will accept us based on successes, victories or club memberships.

What if you tried something different? What if you introduced yourself - as I usually do every time I begin a speech, with a list of struggles, failures and disappointments? "Hello, I'm JL and besides loving the fact that I get to travel often and I'm paid for what they used to put me out in the hallway for, I have a Jeep with 160,000 miles on it, a dog with only three legs, and my hair is falling out."

I now that may sound funny and part of it was meant to. I just wanted to make the point that I'm not about being a depressing person to listen to but rather I want to connect with you. I need to feel connected to you more than I need to feel applauded for my successes. I'd rather you know I'm not a perfect husband nor am I very well equipped to run my own business. I've got weaknesses like anybody else and I need others to help me from time to time.

I can tell you jokes until your laughing produces tears but there are days when no amount of joking can turn my tears into laughter. I'd like to tell you I don't sleep very well at night and never have. I'm not the disciplined and regimented person who gets every job done that he starts. Like you, I need money to survive but it's never been a priority to be wealthy and thus I've missed many a great opportunity. I like to have good credit but it's pretty easy for my creative mind to forget when my payments are due. I guess I just want you to know that I'm as human and vulnerable as you are.

Today I'm writing to tell you that last night I had to clip that same fingernail again. It's my ring finger on the hand. Yes, it's the one I've been clipping ever since I was 11-years-old. I'm never going to forget the old truck because this nail is never going to stop splitting up the middle and I'm always going to be careful when slamming hoods. I've never repeated that lesson because I learned it the first time. I don't like having one fingernail that causes me grief but, here's the good news. It's the nail that has been responsible for the other nine remaining injury free.

That my friend is sometimes the positive side of pain, it can prevent us from experiencing more or more importantly, causing it for others. The next time you see someone or something that has become a scar in your life, take a minute to be thankful for all the pain you've missed out on because of what that lesson taught you. Think of all the people who don't have you to blame for their smashed finger because you know what it feels like.

Today, do your best to forgive and move on. Don't stop using your hands just because someone unintentionally slammed a truck hood on your finger. Don't pass up a perfectly good person to marry just because your last marriage failed. Don't stop dreaming of a better future just because life hasn't worked out up to this point. Life must go on inspite of the potential for more pain. Use the good, let the bad go and remain postive.