Years ago, I read The Illumination, a collection of short stories based on the premise of a world in which suddenly everyone’s pain becomes visible light, illuminating from the source of the pain. The light would increase with the pain – the greater the pain the brighter and more beautiful the light. All types of pain were illuminated, from physical pain like paper cuts and ulcers to emotional pain like grief and anxiety.
This book was one of the most depressing I’ve read. Not only was it a series of stories about extreme physical and emotional pain, but much worse than that was the response of the characters. After a brief adjustment period, the stories portray a world in which these lights become completely ignored. Polite society adjusts to look away from the bright lights.
More Concerned with Politeness than Pain
I hated reading this book. It was a selection of my book club at the time and I hated every page. It was just too painful to read. Too painful because it struck me as completely true. Throughout the book, I kept hoping one of the stories would reveal a time when human beings became more caring and helpful to one another. That story never came. And that is what is true about us. We are more concerned with politeness than pain.
The imagery struck me as true as well. There have been times since reading The Illumination when I could feel my own pain as a light. From the upset stomach to the intense grief I carried with me. And if I’m honest – which is the point of this blog I suppose – I did everything I could in most circumstances to hide that imaginary light. I self-corrected my stance to counter the physical pain. I smiled and joked to hide the emotional pain.
And the natural progression of this thinking was to look around and wonder how brightly the lights around me might shine in the others I looked at. Where were their lights shining brightest? From which part of their bodies? Sometimes I would walk around looking at the world and see that we were all just covered in blackout shades. We were all in pain. We are all in pain. None of us are fine. And we all politely turn our eyes from the sight.
What Draws Us to Each Other
In his theological manifesto, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner explores how we can understand God in the face of atrocities, pain, and tragedy. He tells us to stop thinking of God as a grand puppet master in the heavens controlling our day-to-day lives. There is abundant evidence all around us that this simplified concept of “God” is completely false. Instead, he claims that human connection – the love, care, and abundant generosity that emerge from these times – that is what we call “God.”
Everyone I have met can recall a tragic time in their lives when people suddenly showed up. In my own life, I have noticed myself suddenly sparked to generosity when tragedy occurs for others, sometimes those I have little connection to. In these times of seemingly constant domestic acts of terror, each one is met with infinitely more love and generosity than the horrific hatred of the perpetrators. Fred Rogers so wisely taught many decades ago that parents should encourage their children to “look for the helpers” when scary incidents are reported on television. It’s great advice for adults, too. There are always hundreds, thousands, sometimes millions of helpers that work to heal the situation.
Seek Out Beauty from Pain
Light is beautiful. In The Illumination, the worse the pain was the more beautiful the light was. Perhaps this was part of the message the author tried to offer. If we stopped turning our heads politely, we would be drawn to the beauty of the light. Pain is not beautiful. But what comes of pain can be beautiful. The way in which we reach out to one another is beautiful. In my life, the helpers have always shown up when I let my light shine. Perhaps by showing our pain, and consequently letting others in, we can also learn to let it go.
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