God is a concept by which we measure our pain.
- John Lennon
According to Hesiod, an ancient Greek poet who wrote The Theogony around the time of Homer, the Algea are minor deities, the offspring of Eris and Gaia. They represent pain, grief, suffering, and anguish. This etiology is interesting as it is not associated with any major Greek God. Instead pain and suffering are free to spread out, to roam, and to inflict themselves upon any and all, gods and humans alike! No one, not even Zeus, rules over and commands them. None are immune to or sanctioned from them. No one is exempt. None are exceptional. We are all vulnerable to anguish; we will all be brandished by life.
As Homer and other ancient Greek poets recount so masterfully for us, the gods seem to be almost constantly inflicting pain and war upon each other and of course upon us mere mortals. It just seems to be a part of the cosmos. And perhaps surprisingly, it also seems that we lowly mortals are also able to inflict pain, anguish, and upset upon the gods! One example which stands out clearly in The Odyssey, Homer's magnificent epic poem, is how Odysseus infuriated and saddened Poseidon, the great god of the sea, by horrendously blinding one of his sons, Polyphemus, one of the greatest Cyclops in all the land. Immediately in Book 1 of the poem Zeus explains to Athena:
it's the Earth-Shaker, Poseidon, unappeased,
forever fuming against him for the Cyclops
whose giant eye he blinded: godlike Polyphemus,
towering over all the Cyclops' clans in power.
(Homer, trans Fagles 1.81-84)
Because of Odysseus' triumph against the Cyclops, Poseidon is "unappeased, forever fuming", and so to avenge his son and his own hurt heart, the sea-god torments Odysseus and his men, those that hadn't yet been eaten by Polyphemus that is, for more than 7 years keeping them lost at sea and at the constant mercy of many deadly perils, continually attempting to break their minds, bodies, and spirits, never to return to their families and homeland again. Zeus continues to explain, "though he won't quite kill Odysseus - drives him far off course from his native land" (Homer, trans Fagles 1.89-90). The gods torment us just as much as we are able to torment them. Okay fine perhaps they make us mortals suffer a teensy bit more, especially when you consider they have all the power, all the luxury, and loads of sex, wine, and great food. But then again who ever said life was going to be fair and easy right!
So what's the point here, right? Why all this talk about pain and suffering of all things?!?! Well I had an experience on my latest, and longest ever, venture into the wilderness. I guess you could say pain initiated me on this backpacking trip. You see on day 2 of hiking, and only about 10 miles in, on a 200 mile hike, I happened to get a massive blister on my right heel, about the size of a half dollar, maybe bigger. Then on day 3 I got a massive blister on the side of my left foot, again about the same size. The skin was already ripped off both of them so the cuts were exposed. Then for the next 100 or more miles these same blisters, really cuts at this point, only got worse and worse with each step, each new morning, and at each break and rest stop. They grew larger and larger, and bore deeper and deeper into my feet, going through layer upon layer of skin until they got pretty severely infected, swollen, and extremely sensitive.
According to the NOLS Wilderness First Responder Protocols, the nationally recognized standard in wilderness medicine education, and based upon the severity of these now infected "wounds," as the manual defines them, one on each foot, I really should have stopped hiking probably by mile 30 or 40. But I didn't begin to consider stopping at all until I had reached mile 120, which was where our first and only resupply point was located. It was there that a NOLS certified wilderness first responder, some wise and weathered JMT hikers, and a medical doctor who just so happened to be passing through on the trail at that time, all examined my feet and explained to me in no uncertain terms, that I could not continue hiking on these feet for another 80 miles, most of which were completely off-trail miles in the backcountry no less. It would be too dangerous for me and for my hiking partner to continue, they explained with such logic and clarity. This of course was not music to my ears, to say the least! My pain now just expanded from physical into psychological now too! Great! Thanks Algea!
You see I had been planning this trip for basically a year. It was a trip of a lifetime for me. The culmination of a major portion of the nearly 33 years I've lived on this earth so far this lifetime. Stopping short, going back, resigning, as I viewed it at the time, was decidedly NOT an option for me. Plus I had already pushed through so much pain for so many miles already that another 80 seemed doable to me. Not on that but his next 80 miles had a marginally lower average elevation than what we had just hiked, so I figured I could "man it up" and go for it. That of course was my ego talking. You see I was so consumed with "completing" the trek that I couldn't admit to myself that this was not a good or safe idea to do for me or for my hiking partner, let alone admit to myself that it wouldn't be FUN to do either! Just about all of those 120 miles were so utterly painful that nearly every step hurt me, caused me to cringe at times, and definitely only exacerbated the blisters-turned-cuts-turned-infected-wounds on my feet. What the heck was I thinking!?! Why was I so intent on "finishing" this trip, and what did "finishing" really mean anyway? Really, it was ego, recognition, pride, and a healthy dose of deeply desiring to complete something which I started and sought out upon - this last reason is a worthy gesture to be sure, but at what cost? I was in a major dilemma, and my ego was about to get crucified.
Pain brings us to places we would not otherwise venture into. It forces us to deal with compensations we would not otherwise consider. It gives us an opportunity to love ourselves, to sacrifice desires and attachments, to transcend time and space, to get creative, and to perceive our world paradigms all in a new light. If nothing else will get through to us, stubborn as we may be, pain will eventually break us down. But at this point in the game, I wasn't exactly aware of these things! So I said to myself on the night of the "great intervention," which I so gratefully got from all of my loving and caring new friends on the trail, that if I could put my shoes on comfortably and easily and walk around reasonably pain free then the next morning we would head out. Well that night, by the light of our campfire, I couldn't even get my first shoe on without incredible pain shooting up my ankle and lower leg. Oh shit! Well so much for that idea! Earlier that night, over perfectly roasted marshmallows, I even overheard the doctor who looked at my feet say that he was surprised I was walking at all. Boy was that an eye opener to hear!
The next morning my new friend, the NOLS certified first responder woke me up gently, said to go have breakfast with her, gave me her heel-less croc sandals (a major god send btw!), and then informed me of a wonderful hot spring nearby I could dip into to rest and rejuvenate my barking dogs. The gods may inflict pain upon us in seemingly arbitrary, cruel, and unfair ways, but, in their divine defense, they also seem to save us and care for us and minister to us in ways that at times appear to be just as random, unexpected, and ridiculous. This of course, you can imagine, was music to my ears, and to my feet! So the next couple of days, I rested and rejuvenated in the hot springs every morning like some Persian prince, ate delectably, and meandered around the lazy woods and forests in super comfy heel-less croc sandals. What a treat right! Why was I ever trying to resist and avoid this new journey of mine! I mean seriously what was I thinking!?!
Needless to say my feet are thankfully all healed now, and my hiking partner and I are already beginning to consider another trip next summer to either hike the remaining 80 miles or do it all from the beginning again. So what did I really learn from all this? What is the great value from my supposed "failure" and "prematurely ended" adventure? What did all this pain afford me?
First of all, just getting through pain is a reward all its own. To learn to deal with adversity and suffering is a great ability to master! It builds character and incredible power and a new perspective towards other challenges life, or the gods, issue forth for us. After you surmount something really painful and formidable, your normal, everyday challenges begin to appear smaller, more bite-size, and manageable. They almost take on a cute and petite quality about them at times. The ability to transcend pain and suffering is one of the greatest skills to lift into a higher state of consciousness. To be able to experience and bear witness to great beauty and wonderment before you, and to be kind to yourself and those around you, all while in the midst of pain and suffering is perhaps one of the greatest keys for living a blessed life.
I also realized that no adventure really ever "ends." Ultimately our journeys and goals and accomplishments are truly never "finished" or "complete" here on this earth. There is, and always will be, more. My feet are actually still "hiking" even as I walk through my house and in my city. How are these steps I take now any different from the ones I took, and continue to take, out in the great wilds? We demarcate this as vacation, this as work, this as a journey, this as doing errands. But really these are no different from each other at all - except in our minds and in our perceptions. If this is so, then it begs the question - Why stop or limit or end the journeys and adventures we set out upon if they never really "end"? Who is to say that our journeys don't continue on forever more so long as we shall live? Who's to say?
When Jesus received help and assistance from Simon of Cyrene to carry his own cross, his own responsibility, to his own crucifixion did Jesus fail somehow? Or instead did his, and just as importantly, does our responsibility ever really end regardless of what happens to us, regardless of who aids and supports us in our time of trouble and despair? Do any of such circumstances effect or alter our actual paths, our real destinies? Based upon my latest journey both into the wilderness as well as into pain, both physically as well as emotionally and psychologically, I can testify for myself and tell you unequivocally that any and all limitations we may encounter or experience mean nothing at all and effect not a sliver or a sunbeam of our destiny, our greatness, our journey. Heck, when we look back upon our lives, it will be these very same limitations, trials, and tribulations which we will have overcome, for we do overcome all of our limitations eventually, that will bring us the most warmth and pride and power to our hearts and minds and to the stories we exaggerate, I mean share, with others.
Our journeys are ever-present, always alive, active, and ongoing. In fact, we are the great journey and adventure we long for in our lives. Our grand journeys, our amazing lives, our extraordinary purposes are always present and available to us, beating and pulsing in our hands, silent and aware behind our eyes. Nothing that occurs to us can ever take our greatness and power away. They are ours. We already own them outright. The trick is to realize this, to update our perceptions, attitudes, and feelings, and to act accordingly, for they are always here, always in tact, and always ready for us to pick them up and get going again.
The only way we can abort, albeit temporarily, our journey and destiny, this adventure we've all embarked on called our life, is by our perceiving it as limited, bounded, obfuscated, or mortgaged off in some way. As if our dreams can be blown away by the wind, tampered with by some "wrong" decision we make, or fouled up by chance, circumstance, or even some angry god. These are all lies! We each individually, collectively, and spiritually all hold the master keys to our prisons and penitentiaries. We are the ones who lock ourselves away, set the sentence, and stand guard at our cell. Everything lies within our grasp. We are our own liberators.
There is no end to our journey, our path, our beingness. Our destination does not lie in a goal, an accomplishment, a marker or monument, or a collection of dollar bills that we can all point to and say "Here! This is me! This is my journey, my destiny. I've got it all now!" To strive for such things is to die a sure death, to wither and rot away in a land and in a fashion that is not our own nor our birth right or our divine inheritance. We cannot abrogate the perpetual demands of life to keep going, to discovering anew that which we are, that which is all before us. We are the great temples of the world, the incredible pyramids of Egypt, the awesome feats of mankind, the sacred mysteries throughout the ages. We are all of these things, and our mission, if we so choose to accept it, is to embrace this reality, embrace ourselves, all of us, and to not shy away from our majesty and the majesty before us all. To live rapturously and in a way that encompasses the totality of who we are and of what is life. This is life. As Ray Bradbury once stated in an inspiring lecture to young writers, "You are here to witness and to celebrate...that's your business...we are here to be the audience to the miraculous."
There are no bounds or limits to this journey, to our destiny. It is ever-expanding, all inclusive, and breathed anew each day. As frustrating and as annoying and as dire as our trials and travails may feel to us in our daily lives, our greater estate lies in accepting the conditions of our lives today, just as they are, for although they seem to haunt and overshadow our days, they are necessary. They are vital. We need them. They are our keys, painful as they may be, for the doors to our greater transcendence. We must turn and face our pains, feel them out, bring them close to ourselves, let their voices be heard, allow their grand messages to pipe through us and be known.
On the trail my pain taught me a lot. It literally transformed many ordinary, commonplace, or even unacknowledged awarenesses right before my eyes into relieved, profound, divine realizations. Francis Bacon, in his compact essay Of Adversity states, "Certainly virtue is like precious odors, most fragrant when they are incensed, or crushed: for prosperity doth best discover vice, but adversity doth best discover virtue." There is as much, perhaps even greater, importance and value in absorbing, assimilating, grappling with the pain and suffering we experience in life as there is in letting it go and walking away free. Our own individual wits and wisdoms dictate which approach we apply when. Pain is a great transformer. It is a gateway to our transcendence, a gift from the gods which we are all here to shape even more divine.