Whatever problem you are facing at any given moment seems like the biggest problem in the world. No matter how hard we try to make ourselves feel better by comparing our hardships to those of our friends and neighbors, the stark reality is that when your girlfriend breaks up with you, you fail a test, are fired from a job, miss the game-winning foul shot, break your arm, lose a grandparent, bounce a check, discover your spouse is probably cheating on you or argue with your best client, at those moments of distress nothing else in the world seems to matter.
Last week, I nearly lost a case because of a stupid mistake. I couldn't eat or sleep for two days. I growled at my family, spent too much time in isolation and felt the weight of my world crashing down around me. I knew, with absolute certainty, that my career and life were effectively over. That lasted less than a work week before I ended up winning the case. But the after-shakes still rumble around the edges each time I open a new file.
With that near-disaster safely in the rearview mirror, life was just getting back to its relative normal. Treading water until the next problem. Turns out, that came this week, and the very first lesson I learned is that, for all my sleepless nights, I really have not known pain, misery or misfortune in my life. Until today.
A very close relative is diagnosed with cancer. She is a teenager. The prognosis seems good, but the second lesson I learned is that "good" and "cancer" never belong in the same sentence. A better word is "hopeful." But the stakes are too high for hope. Hope seems puny and insufficient. I hate having hope. The devastating news comes almost 17 years after this same family lost a child three days after she was born. For three days I had hope. I don't want to have hope. I hope the Jets make the playoffs. I hope I get a raise this year. I cannot bear the thought of hoping that my family doesn't die.
I broke the news to my 12-year-old daughter last night. Despite my efforts to minimize the risk, to conceal the worry, she could not stop crying. I asked her why she was crying and she answered "because I just don't understand." The more I explained things to her, the more I began to see the problem: I just don't understand, either.
That is what pain is. It doesn't need to be understood and it often doesn't need to justify its existence. It is the opposite of happiness, and we rarely think about why we are happy. And, when we do, it's given short shrift and superficial analysis. But when we are in pain, the task of understanding the pain and its cause and its remedy becomes all-consuming. I am not wasting another minute trying to figure this out. The epiphany is that so little of the things that bring us pain on a daily basis are meaningless. There are only a few things in life that really matter. We only have the capacity to worry so much. I am done with the small things.
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