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Necessary Pain - How to Cope with Emotional Teething and Come Out Smiling

by Annie Passanisi

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Published on this site: June 23rd, 2009 - See more articles from this month

"This too shall pass." For as long as I can remember my mother has used this phrase, attributed to King Solomon, to ease my pains. "This too shall pass" was her remedy to everything from menstrual cramps to the infidelity of my past beaus. And with good reason; the impermanence of painful times has been discussed in every religious text and most best-selling self-help books. Somewhere along the way, the words of the 1960s band The Byrds (quoting the Book of Ecclesiastes) became our pain-placating mantra "to everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven. A time to be born, a time to die. A time to plant, a time to reap. A time to kill, a time to heal. A time to laugh, a time to weep." We spend as much of our time as possible trying to get the "time to weep" to pass quickly. Many employ vices to hide quiet lingering pains, others turn to faith. Neither of these things have really worked for me. Have they for you?

I have spent years trying to battle the pains of past and present, but never understood the true nature of my opponent until my recent trip to Burning Man. Burning Man is an event impossible to describe, so I will spare you a laundry list of its wonders. I will say only that it was the greatest, most powerful week of my life. And although most of my moments in the Nevada desert were of the "Zippity Do Dah" variety, others were the emotional equivalent of teething. My friends who had been in previous years told me to expect personal growth there. I had not factored in the pre-requisite growing pains. At Burning Man I discovered a rare predicament: I could not cry.

As both an actress and a girl famous for her varied dramatic outbursts, this was both surprising and unsettling. Nothing could get the water works going. A highly anticipated kiss that proved lackluster elicited a few gulping sniffs. The chafing of my legs to the point of bleeding birthed a lot of soggy whining, but I could not cry. My eyes could not produce the bittersweet catharsis I sought to wash away the old issues and usher in the new enlightenment I saw in the dust-covered revelers around me.

All this changed on my final trip to Burning Man's Basura Sagrada Temple. On the final day of my journey, I set off in the midst of the worst duststorm in recent history with my friend Alison. This was to be our last "mini-quest" to the heart of Burning Man. Alison and I took no water for our trek, nor lights to guide the way (we did, however, find some highly prized Chapstick.) We offered our excursion up to the tenet we had come to live by in the desert, that everything happens just as it should. Alison, a loving resident of New Orleans, was going to commemorate the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. I was going to process the casserole of emotions in my head. I was going to cry.

When we finally reached the Temple, Alison and I parted ways. I climbed the double helix stairs reading the Sharpie-written prophecies, memorials, and words of wisdom along the way. I claimed my space in a corner where I could barely make out the sunset and the mountains through the dust. It's what I saw quite vividly that made all the difference. There, above my head, in black marker were the words "Bless This Necessary Pain." And with that, my dry stretch was over. I wailed like Sally Field in Steel Magnolias. When I descended the stairs, I had achieved the peace I sought.

Necessary pain. Google it and you'll find people's articles and diatribes about everything from accurate bookkeeping to circumcision. These irritants, although painful in their own right (I'm assuming, as I am neither a savvy financier nor a boy) are not what I refer to. Google "pain" and you'll see a lot of Viktor Frankl references. His "search for meaning" speaks to a kind of suffering I pray that I will never know. I am not referring to that kind of cruelty-born pain either as there is nothing necessary about it. I refer only to the universal gut-wrenchers, heart-breakers, and tear-jerkers: loss, regret, betrayal, disappointment, sorrow. The things that kept the great Mr. Gatsby on his dock night after night and 90210 on the air year after year. These are the pains that leave you scarred and panting at a crossroads. What I finally learned was, it's how you face the crossroads that matters.

Physical pain is the body's signal to the mind that something is wrong. ?When in pain, we immediately take steps: see a doctor, take a pill, go back to bed. Shouldn't emotional pain, therefore, give us pause as well? Fully addressing emotional pain is a terrifying process. In short, if forces you to think. It is here, in this state of awareness that personal growth is truly possible. According to founder of analytical psychology Carl Jung, "There is no coming to consciousness without pain." For those of you who prefer novels to textbooks, Louisa May
Alcott said, "A significant emotional event can be the catalyst for choosing a direction that serves us - and those around us - more effectively." Some pains instantly change your course. Others leave you lost in the dust merely considering your options. In order to move on, an action must eventually be taken.

Lucky for us, pain is an excellent motivator. As Japanese poet Kenji Miyazawa put it, "We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey." On the platform, my mother, the therapeutic humorist, reminds people that good hair days and perfect children are not the basis for humor. She quotes Carol Burnett, explaining that "Humor is pain plus time." As an artist, I argue that this pain plus time equation yields not only the possibility for humor but for masterpieces. Without depression, Cole Porter could not have written "Night and Day." Without struggle, Ella Fitzgerald could not have sung it half as well. Without pain, no one would have bought the record. This is the contagious nature of pain. When realized and shared, it can soothe not only its host but those willing to listen,
commiserate, and learn.

But before you resign yourself to a classic movie-induced sobfest, take heed. Wallowing will get you nowhere. Remember that pain must not be dwelt upon, simply dealt with and let go. International best-seller The Pathway by Laurel Mellin outlines a three-step process for using pain for growth. First, the "unrealistic expectation." This is the thinking pattern or desire that keeps us stuck in a rut. For example, you would like a promotion at your job but don't want to put in the extra hours required to lobby for it.

When split into pieces this reveals what the book calls the "essential pain," the true cost of whatever it is you really want. In this case, extra effort without the guarantee of success and the subsequent potential for dashed hopes and wasted time. The book then argues that until you deal with these pains, you cannot fully commit to your goals and therefore, they are futile. These pains inform your decisions and course of action, ultimately leading to the final step, the "earned reward." In the best-case scenario, you are awarded the promotion. In the worst case, you at least have the satisfaction of getting off your butt and trying. Either outcome is heaps better than simply wallowing or abandoning your goals before you start.

In the words of Lance Armstrong, who has become the poster-boy for triumph in our times, "Pain is temporary. It may last a minute or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take it place." This echoes the refrain The Byrds sang decades before Lance's first Tour de France, laid down in the Bible centuries ago. "For everything (turn, turn, turn) there is a season." And, as Mommy always said, "this too shall pass." The key lies in making the passing moments, especially the painful ones, worth the battle.


"God whispers in our pleasures but shouts in our pain." C.S. Lewis, Irish born author of The Chronicles of Narnia et al

"Pain is deeper than all thought; laughter is higher than all pain." Elbert Hubbard, American editor and writer

"Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional." Buddhist proverb

"Pain pays the income of each precious thing." William Shakespeare, British author of 38 plays, 154 sonnets, and 2 long form poems

"The pain passes, but the beauty remains." Pierre-Auguste Renoir, French Impressionist painter

"Waiting is painful. Forgetting is painful. But not knowing which to do is the worst kind of suffering." Paulo Coehlo, Brazilian author of The Alchemist et al

"You feel your strength in your pain. It's all in how you carry it." Jim Morrison of American rock sensation The Doors

"Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding." Kahlil Gibran, Lebanese American poet and author of The Prophet et al

What is Burning Man?

According to BurningMan.com, "Burning Man is an annual experiment in temporary community dedicated to radical self-expression and radical self-reliance." The annual festival takes place for one week each year in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. Over 48,000 people from all over the world attended last

Recommended Reading:

Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
The Alchemist: A Fable About Following Your Dream by Paulo Coehlo
The Pathway: Follow the Road to Health and Happiness by Laurel Mellin
The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

Annie Passanisi, co-creator of SPARK magazine, is a Chicago-based actor, singer, writer, marketer, and polka dot enthusiast. For more information, please visit http://www.TheAnniePassanisi.com.

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