The question of why people living with pain seek a reason for why they have pain recently came up in a Facebook group I’m in. It’s a good question, one I used to struggle with myself. Not the why of what’s causing my pain (that’s really more ‘how’ question, isn’t it?) but rather why do I have pain at all? The why beyond a diagnosis, beyond a name for the pain. The why beyond science, beyond medicine, beyond labels.
Why did this happen to me at all? What is the meaning of it all?
Not to say that having a clear diagnosis, a name for our pain, isn’t important, it’s incredibly important, it helps us to feel validated (sometimes vindicated), it alleviates some of the fears and uncertainty, it provides a clearer course of action for moving forward. But even with a cause or a diagnosis or a label, even with a clear management plan (if we’re lucky), those things don’t touch upon why any of it happened to us in the first place.
Why do I have this pain?
The answers proved elusive. I knew my diagnosis, I knew the science of how pain can persist. I knew what pain wasn’t. I knew some ways to move forward. But what I didn’t know was why?
I was asking the wrong question
It took me a long time to realize that I didn’t need to know ‘why’. I needed to know what it was. I needed validation. I needed support and empathy. I needed a path forward and guidance on how to travel it. All of these things helped get me out from under the crushing uncertainty I had lived with for so long.
But what I didn’t need to do was ascribe meaning to my pain.
That’s what freed me. It was only when I stopped searching for the meaning of my pain and started focusing on the meaning of my life that everything changed for me. This was beyond a diagnosis, beyond an explanation for the mechanisms of my pain, beyond names and labels. Those things don’t answer the more existential question of ‘why’.
The ‘why’ of my life was pretty clear to me before pain. I was a firefighter, a team member, a helper, a problem solver. I was of service. It wasn’t just a job, it was who I was.
Then, all of a sudden, I wasn’t, and I wasn’t because of ongoing pain. I lost my identity, my self-concept, my sense of worthiness.
I lost my why.
It was depressing, terrifying, disorienting. It was heavy, I felt buried beneath the weight of purposelessness. It was dark, I couldn’t seevhow I could be of use when I felt so useless. It was lonely, no one else could tell me why, either, not beyond platitudes and inspirational quotes.
It was painful on every level.
The ‘why’ that matters
It took me ages to realize that I wasn’t who I was because I was a firefighter but rather that I had been a firefighter because of who I was. But the ‘why’ of my existence was still muddled and hidden from me because I was so focused on the pain.
In essence I was searching for the meaning of the pain in search of guidance, where do I go from here? What do I do now?
But that was futile, there is no meaning, there is no ‘why’ in regards to my pain. It just is. Everything doesn’t happen for a reason, some things just happen.
What isn’t futile is focusing on the meaning of my life again, what I value, what I can contribute, what my purpose is. How I can serve.
Finding purpose (again)
I found myself again, so to speak, when I found my ‘why’ again, my life’s why, not my pain’s ‘why’.
When I found my reason for being again, the reason for my pain became irrelevant.
It took a long ass time but there are a number of things that helped me to change my perspective, that helped me get to here. Acceptance allowed me to make space for pain so there was room for life. Immersing myself in nature helped me to see how insignificant my pain was in the grand scheme of things, how insignificant I am.
Being more mindful helped me to see the world differently, helped me to see myself differently. It helped me to be more aware, more calm, more present, more grateful, more loving, more kind, more curious, more creative.
Volunteering and writing about my experiences helped me to see that even though my pain is insignificant, that even though I am insignificant, I can still make a significant contribution, I can still have purpose.
I can still serve.
This is what is meaningful. Not my pain.
‘How good is it to remember one’s insignificance: that of a man among billions of men, of an animal amid billions of animals; and one’s abode, the earth, a little grain of sand in comparison with Sirius and others, and one’s life span in comparison with billions on billions of ages. There is only one significance, you are a worker. The assignment is inscribed in your reason and heart and expressed clearly and comprehensibly by the best among the beings similar to you. The reward for doing the assignment is immediately within you. But what the significance of the assignment is or of its completion, that you are not given to know, nor do you need to know it. It is good enough as it is. What else could you desire.’ ~ Leo Tolstoy