A heart-warming truth
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On a recent work trip, I had the privilege of meeting a 79-year old Parkinson’s afflicted writer, whose profound literary mind was reduced to a negligible fraction, not by the disease but by the invalidating abandonment of his 2 sons and the sudden death of his wife and daughter in a freak car accident. Despite his heartbreak, he turns up each morning to work at a soup kitchen nestled in the outskirts of his hometown, showering his warm demeanour over the cold realities of destitution.
His heart bursts with an irresistible force to serve, a compulsion appropriately captured in his blazingly bright eyes - eyes that have been privy to the echoing and eerie emptiness of loss. During an unscheduled afternoon coffee whilst we were waiting for our respective flights, I candidly asked about his experience at the soup kitchen. He replied, “you see the most scarred ones have to carry the punishing body of life on their backs. My duty is to make that journey more humane and hear their souls sing again”. A faint smile flickered on his lips. There was total harmony in the slow paced hues of his voice. His words had a poetic candour and his life felt to me like an an ode to aliveness, life that is both very new and very old. There is truth in how tragedies often make legends.
When pushed to the limits, it is from the repugnant ashes of human extremities, that the human spirit arises, like a new-born phoenix, awakened from deep slumber. Over the years, I’ve come to realise that for every painful circumstance, there is a corresponding lever to dispel it. Because pain is an uncharacteristic bedfellow to liberation - it grounds us to what is real underneath the superficial trappings that we often mistake for life itself. In fact literally all rapturous moments in my life have been punctuated at some point by acute discomfort. But this paradox remains so difficult to accept, not only for me but for most of humankind, I’m led to believe.
Take any form of love, whether divine, romantic or otherwise and you’d realise that it demands a certain degree of pain or strain to prove itself. It has to weather the moulding and welding force of tensions and pressures before the blissful purity of its true form is revealed. Pain is also quite often a measure of love, a brutally honest yardstick to evaluate and prioritise what truly matters to our core.
But perhaps the most curious aspect of pain is in how it initiates, almost understatedly, an unlearning of cultural and social conditioning. In moments of uncertainty, loss or even physical injury, we instinctively repel what is superfluous. In that moment of agony, time-honoured conventions and assumptions, once held sacred, are cast away into oblivion without hesitation. Life is stripped of all artifice. We are suddenly brushed with an unfamiliar awareness of the perilous fallacies of logic that people, institutions and nations continue to hold. The absurdity of an imposed system based on bigoted domination and exploitation becomes clear. Pain cleanses the human soul within from the lies in which it has nested itself - from the petty conceits and cowardice we were once unknowingly held hostage to.
Hence there is a dangerous toxicity to repressed and unacknowledged pain that simmers beneath the surface on the cusp of a full boil. The nature of our very existence requisites the feeling of pain in all its various guises. Pain is the root of reality. It is unsparing, brutal, jagged and often devoid of sentimentality. The question then becomes how we orient ourselves to it. Because life can be spent in total darkness if we do not dare to turn on the light to confront the invisible ghosts that haunt us. The resolution to pursue happiness is a courageous vow that one has to take. There’s a soup kitchen moment in all of us, we just need to seek it.