“Life is pain . . . anyone who says differently is selling something.”
This is a quote from the “man-in-black” in the movie The Princess Bride, and it’s not too far from the truth. Pain is part and parcel of the experience of living and try as we might, we can’t seem to avoid it.
I’m thinking about pain this week because my mother has just undergone a hip-replacement surgery. Thankfully, the surgery went well and my mom is well on her way to recovery. But other than brain or heart surgery, it is hard to imagine a more invasive operation than a hip replacement. Hip replacement surgery involves going deep into the core of your body and removing and replacing a rather large, and very important, piece of your anatomy. The recovery process takes some time . . . and it is painful.
I feel for my mom having to go through this experience. I’ve had my own bouts with pain over the course of my life and can easily recall and review my own list of accumulated physical and emotional scars. Perhaps the most debilitating for me has been recurring bouts of pain due to a herniated disc in my spine. At least a few times a year, I find myself laid out flat on my back, writhing in agony and unable to do even the most minimal activities without a great deal of pain. During these times, I am miserable.
Over the years, I’ve developed my own strategies for dealing with pain. And studying positive psychology has helped. But no amount of psychology can make pain go away. And pain can be like a dark cloud blotting out the sun . . . it becomes impossible for happiness to make an appearance.
A colleague of mine from the positive psychology community, Dr. Lynn Johnson, once shared with me his own experiences with pain after having a double knee replacement surgery. Dr. Johnson is a positive psychologist, a consultant, a speaker and an author of books on healing and happiness.
With his background, Lynn has more than his fair share of psychological tools at his disposal. Throughout his operation and recovery, Lynn practiced gratitude and appreciation of the good things going on around him. Understanding the importance of relationships, he connected with family and friends and cherished the social support network that he had. To keep his hope and optimism high, he wrote “future journal entries” where he imagined how his life would be improved because he had gone through this experience. (Interestingly, one of his journal entries was for January, 2014, so I wonder if this one came true:)*
It is January 2014 and I have both granddaughters with me at Brighton Ski resort. We are on the bunny hill, and I am taking them down, teaching them the wedge turn and weighting the downhill ski. I am feeling grateful that since the 2009 knee trauma, I have been able to ski full days at high speeds all without any knee pain. What a great life this is!
Lynn felt that his efforts at happiness and optimism served him well during his recovery. He did not require much time in the hospital and his physical therapist was surprised at how quickly he recovered.
That being said, even Lynn, a man who has spent his life learning and teaching others how to be happy, struggled through low moments in his recovery. In the days and weeks following the operation, he strove to maintain his happiness. Sometimes, he was successful. Sometimes the pain took over. “I still say happiness helps,” he said, “but the pain is very strong and very persistent.”
This week, as my mom recovers from her own operation, I’m wishing her happiness. I’m hoping she is grateful for the medical technology that has saved her hip, appreciating the friends and family members that have been by her side during these trying weeks, and optimistic for an active future that includes long hikes and fun nights of folk dancing (two of her favorite activities.)
But I also know, sometimes, this optimistic outlook will not be possible. The recovery will hurt. It will be slow. It will be frustrating. In those moments, what I wish for my mom is not happiness, but acceptance. Life is pain, as the man-in-black said. Sometimes, it is all we can do to just hold on and bear the brunt of it.
Mommy, my heart is with you during your recovery, and I’m looking forward to dancing with you again soon.
P.S. Before publishing this article, I reached out to Lynn to see how he was doing. As it turns out his future journal entry was spot on the money. Lynn did go skiing with his grandchildren this winter and was able to ski all day. Go Lynn!
References and recommended reading:
Johnson, L. D. (2007). ENJOY LIFE! Healing with Happiness. Head Acre Press.
By Jeremy McCarthy (@jeremymcc)