Pain, my professor of pharmacology would always announce, is a complex subjective phenomenon. It’s a sensation with varied threshold among different individuals; a response with a depth that cannot be generalized.
Hardship is a catalyst for pain; a medium through which pain is perceived. Unlike pain, hardship is an experience that can be defined and measured with visible social and economic metrics. Pain, on the other hand, centres around perception and cannot be equated. Meaning that hardship becomes beautiful when pain is not perceived within its borders.
We all exist with a degree of pain and suffering, differing (somewhat) in our response to the presence of pain. Regardless, this does not invalidate or excuse the distorted social design by which the scale of hardship tips higher for the economically disadvantaged, against the advantaged.
Hardship, though, isn’t only defined by the absence of economic advantages. There exists the hardship of living through cancer, losing a loved one, being shamed for one’s body, etc. These can befall anyone regardless of their social and financial class. It is a web of unpleasant experiences; an inescapable part of the human experience.
Although hardship often seems to dominate one part of our lives, the pain that ensues is able to affect us holistically. In this way, physical pain progresses to mental pain and translates to pain in our social environment, and vice versa.
Like joy and mirth, hardship is but temporary. Emotions are cyclic and this is also true for experiences. We perceive experiences via emotions and logic. Oftentimes, the former takes precedence. But we need both to navigate the temporality of experiences.
‘All your sorrows have been wasted on you if you have not yet learned how to be wretched.’ _Seneca
In understanding the cyclicity of emotions, we’re also granted the chance to prepare for hardship. Seneca, in a letter to his grieving mother, wrote;
‘Fortune falls heavily on those to whom she is unexpected; the man who is always expecting her easily withstands her. For an enemy’s arrival too scatters those whom it catches off guard; but those who have prepared in advance for the coming conflict, being properly drawn up and equipped, easily withstand the first onslaught, which is the most violent. Never have I trusted Fortune, even when she seemed to offer peace. All those blessings which she kindly bestowed on me — money, public office, influence — I relegated to a place whence she could claim them back without bothering me. I kept a wide gap between them and me, with the result that she has taken them away, not torn them away. No man has been shattered by the blows of Fortune unless he was first deceived by her favours. Those who loved her gifts as if they were their own forever, who wanted to be admired on account of them, are laid low and grieve when the false and transient pleasures desert their vain and childish minds, ignorant of every stable pleasure. But the man who is not puffed up in good times does not collapse either when they change. His fortitude is already tested and he maintains a mind unconquered in the face of either condition: for in the midst of prosperity he has tried his own strength against adversity.’
For hardship to become beautiful, it’s our duty to perceive it as such; to boldly confront the depth of pain that emanates from hardship. This self-intervention, of course, is made easier when we live through hardship in the presence of love. Surrounded by friends, family, and people who love us dearly doesn’t merely buffer the effects of pain in hardship but provides an opportunity to experience it differently.
But more profound than this externalized love is the cherish held for the self. Love for one’s self is a vital piece of this beauty. Outside the realms of external love, hardship becomes easier when it is understood by the self. Life, in its entirety, is a web of suffering, a journey so designed as a passage through uncertainty and the unknowns.
In the words of the poet, Muriel Rukeyser, ‘a child suffers its begetting, it suffers its birth, its weaning; it suffers here and suffers there until in the end it suffers death. But all the good in a man, for which he is praised or loved, is merely good suffering, the right kind, the living kind of suffering, a suffering to the full. The ability to suffer well is more than half of life — indeed, it is all life. Birth is suffering, growth is suffering, the seed suffers the earth, the root suffers the rain, the bud suffers its flowering.’
Suffering threatens our vision of the world, the foundations upon which we thrive and pursue all there is to life. Pain exaggerates this suffering, but with a warning hidden in perception. The self, then, is tasked with pushing through the intensity of suffering, more so in cases where external love is absent.
To arrive at the beautiful side of hardship, we also need courage. In his poignant description of what courage means, the poet, David Whyte, weaves it this way;
‘Courage is the measure of our heartfelt participation with life, with another, with a community, a work; a future. To be courageous is not necessarily to go anywhere or do anything except to make conscious those things we already feel deeply and then to live through the unending vulnerabilities of those consequences. To be courageous is to seat our feelings deeply in the body and in the world: to live up to and into the necessities of relationships that often already exist, with things we find we already care deeply about: with a person, a future, a possibility in society, or with an unknown that begs us on and always has begged us on.’
‘In times of crisis, we summon up our strength. Then, if we are lucky, we are able to call every resource, every forgotten image that can leap to our quickening, every memory that can make us know our power. And this luck is more than it seems to be: it depends on the long preparation of the self to be used.’ _Muriel Rukeyser (poet).
1 Question for You
When we dismiss hardship, do we not deny it of its place in the human experience?
As you think through this question, here’s what you should read next: Begin with the words in Seneca’s On Consolation to Helvia (his mother). Nerd out on the Psychology of Pain and Factors in Pain Perception, and close with these nuggets from Dale Carnegie on how to stop worrying and start living.
*EyoKwindla means ‘month of the first fruits’. It is the Xhosa word for the month, March, and is spoken as a first language by 8.2 million people and by 11 million as a second language in South Africa, mostly in Eastern Cape Province and Transkei. It is also spoken in Botswana and Lesotho.
Thanks for reading.
I started Strange Notes because I wanted an open space to ponder on existence. That’s still true. But here, too, is a body discovering itself. A house beyond borders that’s open to you, to selves in search of, to heads seeking rest. A room where thoughts turn to words turn to records and meet you.
I share notes on my questions about life. I share art as paintings and music and books read. Art that shifts something in me (and possibly in you too). I share intimate (shareable) conversations with friends and strangers. In this place, there are no rules. Move the vase on the tabletop. Shift the curtains to the wall. Pull the rug to the ceiling. Place your eyes on the bookshelves. Strip on the kitchen counter. Speak in your sleep. Daydream. Come, find, ask still.
I publish Strange Notes on the First Sunday of every month, and as you read, I hope that this note initiates a questioning about the fabrics of existence: the things that make us who we are and the activities that define life.