I have just had a tooth out.
There was a gap the size of a small skip between my second back molar and my wisdom tooth, which I referred to as the “black hole.” For years, I lived with an event horizon of 10 feet around my head, which dragged every piece of debris into the gap in my teeth. I am an expert on all things floss-related.
No one I want to know likes going to the dentist. The anticipation of pain causes huge anxiety in even the most stoic of us. And yet to save the important tooth, eradicate inconvenience and improve oral hygiene, I signed up. This morning I took the needle, listened to the crunch and sit here now anticipating a pain tsunami when the numbness wears off.
I chose to suffer the dentist.
The reason I am writing about it is that I believe that in this small experience lies the seed of an idea that is the secret to all success. It is the willingness to suffer.
Last week I re-read my first blog, written in May and reflected on how much of it I had achieved. I wrote about hiring an assistant, buying a flat, beginning research, closing off my life in rural Perthshire and beginning city life in Edinburgh. Here I am at the end of the year and all those things have happened.
I have made other declarations in the past that didn’t happen: building a learning community at Cantle, starting a barn worship event, getting slimmer and fitter, writing a book, working for a charity and travelling more for pleasure. What made the difference this time?
How does something move from being rhetoric to reality? What changes words into tangible things? It is not action. I took action against all the other failed dreams too.
As positive as all my steps forward were over the summer, I think the seed of them succeeding was my willingness to suffer.
When I reflect on the experience of moving my life forward, it was not painless. It was sad to leave my home of 9 years on a beautiful loch. The “otherness” of being a mature student, disappointment at the absence of a welcoming community in Edinburgh, two quite lonely and isolated months, deselecting two assistant delegates (one a good friend) for the one I selected, technology frustrations, unable to relax in what is only a potential home and a little weight gain; all of these brought some rain into my sunny vision.
But before everyone starts turning up at my flat with bowls of chicken soup, I’m OK with it. More than OK with it, I think it was absolutely necessary. I’m beginning to understand change a little better than I did.
The ego is designed to repel suffering. Its architecture is constructed in the first 6 years of childhood, during which time we learn to deal with an imperfect world and get an act together to handle life’s challenges. We construct vigilant analysis to stave off our fears, charm to prevent people from leaving us, dominance to avoid humiliation, compliance to fend off guilt and ambition that will outrun the shame of failure.
If it were up to the ego, we would find a track that creates bankable emotional pay-offs and avoids suffering and we would stay on it. So why don’t we?
We are deeper than our egos. We are more fundamental than our personalities. There is something in us that our heart beats for that we did not choose. It is our purpose, our first nature, our spirit, our commitments, our unique contribution. It is our passion.
The word passion is derived from the Latin word, passio, which means, to suffer.
The things that are most important to us in this life are revealed in what we are prepared to suffer for. It is the tests of life, the struggles willingly engaged with, the breakthrough moments when our commitment wins over our desires that give us a glimpse of who we really are. These glimpses are enough to orientate life in the right direction and create experiences that fulfil us.
The biggest waste of time in this life is the pursuit of happiness. This will eventually steer us towards comfort: away from adventure and onto the hamster wheel of laboured security. It is far better to pursue aliveness, with all its seasons and chaos. It might lead to a few blue months and a little dis-orientation but you will feel alive.
Here is what also happened this year. My brother changed jobs and we spent more time talking than we had for years. I heard one of the loveliest sermons ever. My flat is becoming beautiful and has a sofa that lulls you to sleep whenever you sit on it. My new assistant is tenacious and patient and we are becoming friends. We found a new consultant who wants to join us. The weight gain is a direct result of the discovery of a great Chinese takeaway.
I feel liberated and younger than I have in years, having knocked down the security gates of the safe cul-de-sac I was building for old age. It has been a good year and the suffering was worth it, though, intriguingly, I can recall little of the actual pain.
Two hours on from the tooth extraction and the numbness is starting to wear off now. I have to tell you that it doesn’t feel too bad and it means I can now have a cup of tea.