I was listening to a series of lectures by Pema Chödrön the other day. She is a Buddhist nun and teacher who I find very insightful and inspirational. In her lecture, she said something to the effect that we should never underestimate the human drive to avoid discomfort. I was taken aback by the sheer obviousness of the comment. After all, why would anyone choose pain over joy? Why would anyone choose to be anxious if they could choose to be calm? Why would anyone willingly welcome loss, failure, or grief? I nearly missed her point as I mentally argued my point with her. Her point was that only through experiencing discomfort can we actually grow or learn. Discomfort has something to teach us. Though we have a million ways to avoid and distract ourselves from discomfort, we are never really eliminating it. We are merely putting it off. In some cases, we are even compounding the problem. For example, when people use drugs, alcohol or food to numb their pain, they are just putting the pain on pause. It will be there when they wake up. I am not advocating that we live a life of suffering sleeping on a bed of nails denying ourselves joy. I do think, however, that we need to be able to stay with discomfort and be open to what it can teach us. More importantly, we need to help our children to develop the ability to be with their pain or sadness as an inescapable yet transitory part of life. We can be compassionate toward their feelings without robbing them of the opportunity to learn how to experience these emotions. I think this is what my dad intended when he would say, “It builds character”. “It” was always something unpleasant that I was sad or disappointed or angry about. Though at the time I always replied (mentally), “I have enough character already! How much do I need?!?!”, the truth is that there was always a lesson in the pain. No matter what that lesson is, I always grow from it and it is usually accompanied by a realization that I am stronger than I thought was.
When I was 21, I bought my first pickup truck. I had been walking to school for two years. I did not mind the snowy hike up to the University of Alaska really. But more and more, my labs were in the evenings. Though it was dark during the day as well, the darkness at night made me uncomfortable and not because of human predators. After a few weeks of searching, I found a 1984 Dodge Ram pickup. It was a 4-wheel drive, half ton with a 225 slant six. I got it for a steal from a man who decided that getting up at 2 AM in 40 below weather to warm up the engine was not really worth the sheer beauty of Fairbanks, Alaska. My then boyfriend (now husband) had a tight group of friends from his hometown. When I got my truck, they informed me that I had to take it four wheeling with them. It was sold as some sort of rite of passage but truthfully, I think it was more likely a form of hazing (someday I will tell you about the Ptarmigan Call which I totally fell for). Regardless, I am not the type of person who backs down from a challenge – even when a smarter person would. Needless to say, I accepted and quickly found myself in a line of 4 X 4’s heading out past Murphy Dome. My husband rode with me all the way to the top. It was nerve-racking. I did not want anything to happen to my new truck. The beast was so much longer that the Scout ahead of me or the Landcruiser behind me which made it much less agile. Add to that the fact that I am 5’5” tall, so on the uphill grade I had to grip the steering wheel and lean in to see past the five feet of hood in front of me. Most of the road was dirt and gravel but several places were washed out leaving only enough surface for two tires. Slipping off meant backing downhill to get back on top of the tracks. We went slow, low and steady for a couple of hours. The trip was mostly silent. It is not that I had nothing to say but my jaw was locked too tight to talk. My neck and shoulders were killing me by the time we got to the top. The momentary pride I felt when the guys congratulated me for making it was dashed when I realized I had to drive back down. Even though I felt like I was admitting defeat somehow, I turned to my husband and asked him to drive it down. I was turning toward the cab when he said, “Oh no. It’s your truck. You have to drive it down.” I couldn’t believe it. I was on the verge of tears which just made me mad. I mean here I was with these guys who were never going to let me forget it if I cried. But I was beat. I honestly wasn’t sure I could get back down. Sometimes you don’t know how strong you are until you have to be strong – or until you are really pissed off. And I was. I looked at my husband and told him to find a ride off the mountain. Then I started the engine and got in line. Half way down, we hit the double track. I was all the way at the bottom when someone started honking behind me. One of the guys in a Landcruiser had slipped off and was high-centered. My husband hiked back to me. He explained that I was going to have to back up the hill and pull him on to the track. He looked at me and said, “You can do this. I’ll stay behind you. Go slow and watch me.” The way he said it made me believe he thought I was strong and capable (and possible was not just being a jerk earlier). I put it in reverse and inched back up the hill watching him direct me in my rearview mirror. I pulled the Landcruiser out and we made our way home. The guys gave me credit. It didn’t stop them from throwing the gauntlet down when they could, but I think they respected me for sticking it out.
On that trip, I didn’t have time to think about anything but what was actually happening moment to moment. I didn’t have time to analyze what was said. I didn’t have time to agonize over how I came to be in that position. I didn’t have time to play out all the possible outcomes in my head. I didn’t have time to make up some story about the event which would only cause me greater discomfort. There was no way to avoid the discomfort of the moment except to just be with it. Just like everything else in life, it passed. Just like every experience I have – good and bad- I learned from it. I learned I was stronger than I thought. I learned my husband already knew that.
This is a picture of the Beast from one of our many adventures. Man, I loved that truck!