The Purpose of Pain – And Why We Need More of it.
I’ve had a very comfortable life. Sometimes maybe a bit too comfortable. In this blog, I aim to explain a bit more about what I mean by that, and the ways in which the dynamic of comfort and pain have affected me, ultimately leading me to where I am today. I often receive comments about my art that it is beautiful… but dark. In order to explain that more fully, I decided the importance of sharing a little bit more of my story - the one I don’t really like to share. Every artist has a back story, and every artist’s work is a product of this story to some extent. So here is a bit of mine – the part of Meg that exists outside of painting. The part of Meg that writes the sequence of brush strokes for what later will become said painting… This writing doesn’t focus on any one single work of art, but everything I’ve collectively created. I hope this is able to provide a little bit of insight as to why I make what I make, and I do hope maybe will even make my work a bit more relatable. I want to preface this writing with this question to ask yourself: How comfortable are you?
It’s 5:15 am… My alarm is going off. I’m confused, immediately irritated, and groggy as hell. I lay there, face down in my pillow, as I come up with every creative excuse I can imagine at such a godless hour as to why I shouldn’t have to work out this morning. I then process all 5 stages of grief in the next 4 to 7 minutes (this is my average) and drag my already sore body out of bed, pull on my running shoes, and drive my pouty ass to the gym. “Here we go again…” I say. It’s not fun. I can’t say I enjoy waking up and doing something I hate first thing every day. But I do it anyway. Now it’s just my new normal.
Society promotes comfort – this “less effort, more results” kind of attitude. Quick fixes. Life hacks. Cure-alls in a bottle. Success is comfort. And the more comfortable you are, the more successful you are. Comfort is good. Pain is bad. You don’t need to struggle. You don’t need to hurt. You don’t need to feel sad.
“We have a pill for that.”
I learned the hard way how damaging comfort can be. How weak it can make you – especially mentally and emotionally. The truth is, comfort is where we all go to die. When someone is nearing the end of their timeline, what do we do? We try to “keep them comfortable.”
Growing up in a middle-class, traditional, white household comes with a lot of privileges. I got to experience many things in my childhood that a lot of people don’t. Throughout high school, college, and post-graduation, I continued to reap the benefits of this lifestyle – no, things weren’t always easy or perfect, but I ALWAYS had a safety net. Throughout my entire lifetime, none of my needs (food, water, shelter) were ever at risk of not being met. Modern society no longer requires that we go out and search for or run down our food. Food comes from the grocery store. Water come from a sink. Everything else I had of top of that was, gravy. It was, and still is, privilege. Easy. Comfortable.
But I didn’t always see or appreciate any of it. Throughout my teenage years, I struggled with a lot of mental health issues. I was rather awkward, shy and unconfident. We moved to a new city, and I struggled mentally and emotionally to fit in. I hung out with the wrong kids. It was the first time I ever was having to truly work through something… to struggle with a significant level of emotional turmoil. It’s the first time I ever had to “adapt”. And I didn’t.
I instead coped in extremely unhealthy ways, struggling with self-harm and anorexia – and ended up starving myself down from 150 pounds to 110 in a matter of 2 months. On a 5’ 7’’ frame, it was beyond unhealthy. I almost lost my life. And it didn’t stop there. I continued to struggle with both anorexia and bulimia throughout college, post-graduation, and sometimes I still do now, 4 years later. Today, I’m turning 28. But there’s a difference now... and I don’t struggle in the same way that I did at age 14.
The change came around age 25 or 26 in (2015ish) when I finally realized I was going to have to quit feeling sorry for myself, nut up, and start to “adult”. I was benefitting from still being on my parent’s health insurance, and I knew that once 26 rolled around, my time was gonna be up. Up until that point, I think I had been in and out of every treatment center, hospital, doctor, dietician, and therapist’s office in Cincinnati and Columbus. My dad’s company pretty much provided the Rolls Royce of health insurance plans, and whatever wasn’t covered, my parents paid for. So I just kept going. Playing victim. Being sick. “Wanting” to get better, but not really caring to put in the work. Because if I got better, then how would I cope? Life was supposed to be comfortable, damn it! Cope with discomfort? Turns out I didn’t know how. And not only did I not know how, I was too entitled to think I should have to. Twenty-six rolled around, and I went from driving that Rolls Royce to a Ford Pinto… instantly. I still had health insurance through my new company, but it was absolute shit, and basically would only protect me from entire financial ruin, should I happen to get into a severe accident or suffer severe acute illness. There was going to be no more therapy sessions. No more treatment centers. No more hospitals. Not unless my broke-ass wanted to pay for it. At the time, I could barely pay my rent.
It was March of 2015. My dad said to me, “You are going to have to find a different way to handle these things…”, after going through a particularly weak mental stint after a college breakup. I ended up in a hospital again, staring at four white walls, completely lost. Breakups are always hard, but I was non-functional. If it wasn’t for the help of my parents and sister and pity from my college professors, with 2 months to go, I wouldn’t have graduated college at all. I literally thought my world was ending. It had been a bad year, but things are never bad enough that you should ever just want to give up and die… But when you focus everything on a fantasy life that relies entirely on someone else – someone else that is extremely unhealthy to be around – that’s exactly what happens. You wake up and realize you have no idea who you are.
So I started lifting weights. I’ve always been active and exercised, but previously, I had only ever used excessive cardio for the sole purpose of burning as many calories as possible. It was a means of punishment for myself for eating too much food. I hated it. It was another truly unhealthy relationship that I had going... But weights changed things. It was the first time in probably 10 years that I realized I could in fact be strong! That starving yourself, or forcing yourself to vomit, or intentionally harming yourself, in some sick way, does serve it’s purpose to “cope” with emotional turmoil. It temporarily, like any drug, will numb out the suffering, but it doesn’t make it helpful. It doesn’t foster growth. It’s a backward facing mindset. It’s destructive pain. Not constructive pain.
Being able to differentiate this for the first time was what catapulted me into truly WANTING to get better. I was so done with this shit… being “sick”, weak, and tired all of the damn time from bingeing and purging – sometimes 4 or 5 times a day. Everyday. I saw how much of a burden bulimia was bringing – physically, emotionally, mentally, financially, and socially.. literally every aspect of my life (I once calculated that I could have purchased a car with the amount of money I spent of binge food in a year). And I was so done with it. But it’s not that easy. Old habits die hard. And this habit was a huge, mean, ugly, seemingly undefeatable Godzilla... And it’s only now, after yet another 3 years in 2019, that I can say I finally feel like I’m finding a pattern that is going to get me out of this.
Cue pain. But not that destructive kind I fostered for so long. The constructive kind. The kind that will either physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually make you stronger. All of those comforts that I should have been appreciating instead made me weak. And I had to re-learn that to truly be comfortable, you have to learn to get “comfortable with being uncomfortable”, a quote credited to Peter McWilliams, but is a saying among the Navy SEALs, and is often referenced in distance running literature. It wasn’t until I truly embraced this concept that my sorry attitude began to shift.
Weight lifting definitely helped a lot of things – including my self-worth, body image, and confidence. But the rock climbing is what began to heal my head game, and grow that mental toughness. I got an invite from an old friend to “just come try it” at our local climbing gym… and I was hooked. Unlike weight lifting, which is incredibly physically demanding, rock climbing is both physically AND mentally demanding… for me, a lot of times my head game is my limiting factor. Being a rock climber doesn’t mean you’re not afraid of heights. If anything, I am probably MORE afraid of heights now than ever! But I love the challenge. I love going through the hurt and the fear. Sometimes I get too scared and have to come down. But sometimes I work through my nervousness and discomfort and make it to the top. Sometimes I learn that on that day, I didn’t have the strength or mental resources to succeed in that moment, and then I learn how to cope with failing. Yes. FAILING. I learned it’s ok to fail. Rock climbing is dangerous. But comfort will kill you.
Then I got hurt. I suffered from a wrist injury that grounded me (literally) for almost a whole year. And once again, I was not real adept at managing this mental frustration… yet. I needed to climb. I needed to do something. I was depressed, and pouty, and spiraling down again in to my whiny little hole. And I knew it. So I started running. First I just casually ran. But after experimenting with medium long distances of about 3-7 miles, I thought to myself one day, “I wonder if I could run a marathon?”… and that thought turned in to a year-long miserable marathon training schedule that I concocted for myself. Again, I searched for that constructive pain.
For anyone interested in learning how to increase the level of discomfort in their life, running will forever be the keynote speaker. Rock climbing is hard, but running will break you down until you are nothing but an ugly, melted, crumbling pile of pouting tears, blood, boogers, bugs and sweat. Until you realize you lost your toenails shortly after you lost your ego. Until you are begging and bargaining with yourself saying , “you idiot, just STOP.” When you feel like there is just absolutely nothing left of you. And then you keep going. I never really have liked running. And certainly not distance running. So running a marathon may seem like an odd choice to dedicate a substantial amount of time and training to. But it taught me so much more than I ever knew there was to know about myself – and that pain and discomfort again played a crucial role as another stepping stone in my recovery.
Sometimes it’s not acute pain. Sometimes life brings chronic pain. Sometimes pain that you have to tolerate for a long period of time. For some that may be physical, like the type of nerve pain my grandpa suffered with for years, up until the end of his life. For others that may be mental. The interesting thing about that, is that our brains process social and physical pain through similar neural pathways, and that we often use similar language to describe physical pain as we do emotional pain1. In the months following the marathon, I didn’t really consider the importance of having a “post-marathon plan”… all that training, as miserable as it was, gave me a lot of structure, and fostered a lot of mental toughness. But just like a muscle, if it’s not used, it weakens. And I could feel myself slipping out from under myself again. I lost that focus. I quit putting in the work. I wasn’t “lazy”, but I was coasting. And for me, that’s just not good enough.
The end of 2018, coming in to 2019 became a big test for me. I was struggling in my current relationship. I felt depressed, sad, and lost. I started to feel like I was losing myself again, and all of those sad, depressing feelings that come along with that began to surface – those things I hate the most; those negative emotions that formerly derailed me. So on January 4th, 2019, after another stretch of bad days, I decided that it was better late than never to define my New Year’s resolution. This year, it was to “explore toughness”… something that I felt like I started to lack in the 2nd half of 2018. At the time, I didn’t exactly know what “explore toughness” meant, but I left it broad, because I knew I had a lot of toughness to explore.
So I started with running again. And then I purchased “Can’t Hurt Me” by David Goggins, and I truly took it to heart. If you have the stomach to handle a few 4-letter words and a big dose of reality, I highly recommend this book. I absolutely absorbed that book and every hard, uncomfortable lesson that David Goggins shared from his life, and pursued my “toughness” resolution in every area of my own life – physically, mentally, and emotionally. It essentially became my Bible. I came to terms with the fact that my relationship wasn’t working. I was honest with myself that I was taking a weak route and making excuses in my eating disorder recovery. I charted it out, and looked back through my run tracker history and I saw that I had almost quit running entirely. I was turning down opportunities to climb because it was easier to just not. I owned all of it. And I told myself that wasn’t good enough.
I knew the decisions that I needed to make next were going to be mentally and emotionally miserable for all parties involved. And that was a tough thing to swallow. To end a relationship is to experience loss. Emptiness. A broken heart. In turn, I knew I had to move. And everyone knows that moving SUCKS. Add those together, and you have one of the most painful events that life has to offer. But this time I was determined that I wasn’t going to fall apart. I knew there would be moments of weakness (for example, one night in a fit of rage, I threw a humungous adult temper tantrum and shredded every last page of David Goggins’ book and threw it all over my kitchen and dining room… it’s really something I’m not proud of, especially because it was a book I loved, plus the fact I believe it's morally wrong to destroy any kind of intellectual material – but I did it anyway, and I accepted that about myself in that moment. And sometimes we retaliate on the things (and people) we love most. It was a tough moment that got the better of me. It was a weak moment. I acted like a 3 year old. But that’s ok, because I picked up and carried on. And I still carry the principles of that book in my mind.) So this time, instead of derailing entirely for weeks or months of weakness on end, I was hell-bent on keeping it to just that – MOMENTS. I practiced for this. I knew this pain. And this time I was ready for it. There would be no losing myself – no way, not this time. And instead I just invited more pain – through my workouts, through focusing on my business even when I didn’t “feel” like it, and through dedicating myself to my work. Similarly to how turning up your music really loud to drown out other sounds,I turned up the misery. I turned to climbing. I turned to lifting weights. And I began my brutal 5am dates with the treadmill. Turn up the volume, and everything gets quieter.
I use working out as only one example of the infinite ways that we can practice physical, mental, and emotional toughness. It is certainly not the ONLY way. I’ve watched friends with degrees and full-time jobs take risks to go back to school, while continuing to work, to pursue an entirely different career path. My sister made the decision to join the Army, completed boot camp, and then at the end of her 4 year term, re-enlisted to continue service. For myself, I knew that it was time to quit pissing another day and night away binge-eating my way through a tough situation, completely missing out on my life. Numbing it out instead of staring life in the face. Instead I would paint, brainstorm new ideas, or work on business paperwork – even if I didn’t fucking feel like it. I finally work for a company that I love, and I knew for the first time, it was time to start giving 110% effort. I knew it was time to quit drinking my body weight in wine every night, and go to bed earlier instead. And I knew it was time to buckle down and recover for good. I had to stop bingeing. I had to stop purging. It was time to stop feeling sorry for myself and this addictive behavior or bad habit or whatever you want to call it. It was time to recover from bulimia, or all of these “tough” and “painful” life-changing decisions I pulled the trigger on in January would be a complete and total waste if I could not recover. I was given some blunt advice once… “You know, one day you’re just going to have to stop.” And so I pursued recovery with that in the forefront of my mind. And that when things get tough and miserable and loud in my brain, it doesn’t matter. There’s no giving up. There is no giving in. Because I’m just gonna be tougher.
This is the purpose of pain and suffering in our lives. Sometimes it’s voluntary. Many times it’s involuntary. But when you experience something you hate (like paying taxes), something that is painful (like your 3rd workout of the day), something that invites suffering (like finishing up the tiniest details of a painting when you are tired and sore and cross-eyed) every day, the time that is spent in comfort is appreciated with a new genuineness and vigor that would never have been experienced otherwise. That peanut butter toast with coffee will be the best breakfast of your life, every single day. That dog that sometimes annoys the crap out of you will be your saving grace when you realize how much she fills that gaping void you would otherwise feel, laying down alone at night. Having a warm house, a hot shower, and a cup of tea seems like a luxury you shouldn’t be able to afford. Having the ability and capacity to create feels like a gift to relish in instead of a chore. I certainly have bad days. Days were I’m sensitive and emotional. Days where things sometimes still hurt more than I’d like them to. Days where I ask people to apologize for me. And without fail, there is always someone there to remind me that the world doesn’t fucking stop spinning for you. So invite more pain. Practice it. Increase your tolerance. Push yourself in other areas instead. Everyone is allowed to have those days – we aren’t defined by our good or bad moments. We are defined by our aggregate total.
So I want to leave you with this: I believe there is purpose in pain. It is something we all share. It is a key part of the human experience. To miss out on it, to avoid it, to never know it, is to miss out on being human. And what defines us is not the pain itself, but how we move through it. Because the only thing we are ever actually going through is time. Like any skill, it may come naturally to some people. And some people must practice. A lot. A lot more than others. It may take more time. But in the end, there is always value in getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, because pain will be inevitable. But you can be ready for it. Pain is tough. We are tougher.
How comfortable are you now?
Don’t hit snooze.
If you want to try running, cut your toenails first.
If you want to try climbing, cut your fingernails first.
Eat more plants.
1. Department of Psychology, Franz Hall, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1563, USA