Pain knocks the corners off life. It strips away the inessentials. You face yourself in your depths. Yet It turned out to be a journey to beyond self. Rather like walking through woodland, brambles tearing my skirt, branches whipping my face, unsure of my direction, the path blurred by fallen leaves. Till there is a sunlit clearing at the centre. That has been the gift of pain.
I just heard a TED talk by Dan Gilbert (The Surprising Science of Happiness) in which he explains impact bias. Impact bias is the way we, falsely, believe that what happens to us (his examples are winning the lottery or becoming a paraplegic) has far less effect than we think it will have. There's masses of research proving that a few months after a major life event, good or bad, we have regained our natural happiness set point.
Because we all have what he calls a psychological immune system. It beavers away under the surface reframing our reality so that we can feel better about our lives. Like my mother insisting my boy friend thought the world of me when, in fact, he had dropped me cold.
And that's where my sunlit clearing comes in. I stumbled into it, in daily pain, with doors closing wherever I turned. Just as when you have flu, you don't clean out the fridge, so with chronic pain, I stripped back my life. I rationed my resources – pain takes an awful lot of energy.
It felt as if my life had become smaller. My radius was tighter, visits confined to those who could come to us. Yes, my happiness set point did settle – there are pools of happiness in pain. Perhaps it's like banging your head against a wall – lovely when it stops. So there were exquisite moments of pure joy.
Even better, as my life narrowed, it was the dead wood that went: unnecessary worries, shitty friends, cleaning silver, though I still iron. We all need to do things that engage us, see things that move us, visit with loving friends. The art was to choose what was already there. It was amazingly freeing not to have huge choice. If we go out for a meal, there are only a handful of restaurants that work; so what if there aren't more.
What was left was pure gold: a streamlined life free of static. It was as if I had gone into a fussily decorated room, spring cleaned and tossed out the bric-a-brac. I only have limited energy, so I don't waste it on things that I am borderline interested in, or people who backbite, drone on or complain. Each moment is chosen for its essence: clouds drifting across a wide sky on a high summer evening, a single flower, a cat kneading and purring, a grandchild's laughter. Evenings spent in enthusiastic conversation and laughter. People I care deeply about.
I pruned myself too. In a vain attempt to find if there was an underlying emotional issue driving my pain, I unraveled my psyche, knot by knot. Not always pleasant, sometimes wrenching, but gradually mists cleared. Less static, cleaner lines, more peace.
So what I am trying to say is that life can throw some nasty curves. At times it feels there's no way up, but we are engineered to find equilibrium. Our happiness set point reasserts itself.
My cousin said to me, “Jane, you don't have a life worth living!”
From my depths came my instinctive reply, “Oh, Ann, it is!”
Title Quote: Throw the lumber over, man! Let your boat of life be light, packed with only what you need – a homely home and simple pleasures, one or two friends, worth the name, someone to love and someone to love you, a cat, a dog, and a pipe or two, enough to eat and enough to wear, and a little more than enough to drink; for thirst is a dangerous thing.
Jerome K. Jerome – Three Men in a Boat
TED Talk: The Surprising Science of Happiness by Dan Gilbert.