Hurts More, Bothers You Less

October 13th, 2011

There is a bumper sticker that says,

You can tell Americans have faith by the way they drive.

I don’t know about that. I’ve never found Americans to be better or worse drivers than anywhere else I’ve been. But it is an interesting saying. What is the relationship between faith and responsibility? Many people live by the mantra,

Believe as if everything depends on God, but live as if everything depends on you.

For a faith based person, this is part of the antidote to feeling overwhelmed. It encourages rigorous personal responsibility balanced with a sense that life is ultimately in the hands of a force higher than yourself. It’s a helpful mantra, even if you’re not faith based.

Even from an evolutionary, or natural, perspective, it makes sense. Here it is again with a different spin,

Trust that life has larger purposes and timing beyond your understanding, but live as if your actions matter.

How does this relate to feeling overwhelmed? It’s the balance between responsibility and equanimity (or acceptance). You absolutely co create the future as it emerges AND you surrender the parts of life that are out of your control, such as outcomes and other peoples’ actions. So far in this series, I have outlined 10 ways to know if you are becoming overwhelmed, and 10 practical ways to overcome overwhelm. In the third piece and in more depth in this piece, I am exploring the connection between empathy and overwhelm.

This broader perspective holds responsibility and acceptance in balance. In the words of American philosopher Ken Wilber, pain “hurts more but bothers you less.” It’s a challenging distinction because there is no absolute answer as to when to hold on and when to let go, when to move and when to wait. You just hold the space for the tension between the two and lean on your inner wisdom to guide you.

In practical terms, I understand it to mean that you feel pain so deeply that it might as well be taking place in your own body or mind. AND you don’t rush to remove it (even if you could) because you don’t know the big picture as to whether there is some greater purpose to the pain. In effect, you let go of the outcome. But of course empathy is powerful and people can feel when you feel their pain. It helps. It doesn’t necessarily make the pain go away, but it helps enormously.

This perspective keeps you right, smack in the middle of change and pain- you are intimately involved and active but not burdened by having to solve the problem or remove the pain. This is ultimately a way to avoid burnout and overwhelm. (Read on for more about feeling pain without letting it destroy you)

The saying from Wilber is especially meaningful to me because it grew out of his personal tragedy, losing his wife Treya to a long battle with illness. I read about their experience in the powerful book, Grace and Grit. In the book, Wilber says this,

Grace and grit summarizes Treya’s entire life. Being and doing. Equanimity and passion. Surrender and will. Total acceptance and fierce determination. Those two sides of her soul, the two sides she wrestled with all her life, the two sides that she had finally brought together into one harmonious whole.

I suspect that I resonate so deeply with the book because of my own experience. I have had times in my life where I felt like I was fighting for survival and surrendering the outcome was all that I could do. Whenever I come close to rock bottom, when I hit the wall and crumble in the face of overwhelming anxiety, surrender becomes inevitable.

I stopped believing in an interventionist God during one of these low times because it seemed so passive and implausible in the light of my predicament. At the same time I grew to trust implicitly and intuitively that everything happens exactly as it needs to happen, and right on time too. I surrender to this perspective on a daily basis, and a word like God is not out of place as a way to describe this surrender to a larger purpose than I can ever fully comprehend. Other western names for this experience include Higher Power, Ground of Being, God within and many others. With or without a name, I know that I couldn’t function for long without the experience. Without it, I would spend my days hitting up against the wall of overwhelm, with no recourse beyond my own wits, which are incredibly limited.

Personally, I feel no need to defend or deny any religion based on the existence of God. I do think it’s important, however, that each person finds their own path of surrender in the face of the mostly mysterious, and constantly changing forward motion of life. Most arguments for atheism don’t even touch on the experience of surrender that I’m speaking about here.

I encourage everyone, theist or atheist, faith based or not, to build into your life a healthy sense of surrender. It is more rejuvenative than a vacation, and costs far less too. When held in balance with personal responsibility and strong willed activism, it is by far the most potent protection against burn out and overwhelm.

One final comment- the reason so many people look to nature to recharge their batteries is because nature exudes the balance between action and surrender. I will end this series on overwhelm with the powerful quote from Wendell Berry that I know literally by heart,

When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

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  1. [...] The second piece looked at 10 ways to release the tension of feeling overwhelmed. The fourth piece explores the phrase “Hurts more, bothers you less.” (read on for more about my personal [...]

  2. [...] control. In the third article, I talk about empathy without becoming overwhelmed. In the fourth article, I explore the phrase “Hurts more, bothers you [...]

  3. [...] control. In the third article, I talk about empathy without becoming overwhelmed. In the fourth article, I explore the phrase “Hurts more, bothers you [...]

  4. Joe Murawski says:

    Ian……Thank you……what more can I say. I was drawn to your article. That sense of “overwhelmed” has been my daily bread and companion of late, and the only solace Ifind is  in an awareness of Presence and the understanding that everything is as it should be. Ken Wilber actually inspired the Integral Spirituality page I set up on Facebook listed above, though I have not yet read the book that you mentioned. I appreciate your timely word. It is a blessing.  I especially like the quote from Wendell Holmes. Thank you for Being! – Joe Murawski

  5. ian says:

    thanks Joe. I will check out your page on FB

  6. Keith says:

    I am enriched by your writing ministry.  I especially like the Soulseeds subscription and have share many of them with others.  In this last series, however, there’s a recurring ‘theory’ that doesn’t compute for me.  I wonder whether I’m seeing it with ‘jaunticed’ eyes.  The phrase “Everything is as it should be…” is in contradiction with much of the ‘inspired’ challenges you write about.  We are called to ‘make a difference’ in this world and in ourselves.  I’m giving my life in a career that exists because ‘everything is NOT as it should be.’  My orientation in the Christian faith did not include ‘Pre-destination,’ or the phrases, ‘ There are no accidents,’ ‘What will be will be’ …’It was meant to be’…etc.  
    Am I misinterpreting your statement?   How can I understand the way it fits into all the great inspiring articles you write?   

  7. ian says:

    hi Keith- good question. The key phrase is “Everything is as it should be….for now.” Nothing stays the same, but also nothing changes until it is ready to change. As Jung said, “You cant change anything until you accept it.” If you seek change without acceptance, you only end up spinning your wheels in resistance. With acceptance, change becomes effortless. Its all about discernment; when to accept, when to move. Acceptance and change, grace and grit, determination and equanimity. all held in tension. Its the serenity prayer in action. I hope that helps.

  8. Keith says:

    Acceptance.  Acceptance?  I learn of ‘injustice’ and/or ‘hunger’ in the world (and in my own community)… I compare those with misplaced ‘anger’ from one in close relationship with me.  The latter I can see what Jung’s approach means to it.  But the former, and like critical ‘wrongs’ around us, fit into a different category.  For me it is as though the ‘Universe’ calls for my ‘all’ to reject the wrongs, work with like minded others, and effect change ASAP. 
    ‘Acceptance’ in such instances would relieve me of any involvement; like walking past the derilect propped up in a doorway, half conscious, and feeling no responsibility…(that’s just the way things are).  Perhaps I could use another term to better understand ‘accepting’ the ways things are?     

  9. Carol Shimp says:

    Ian said, I grew to trust implicitly and intuitively that everything happens exactly as it needs to happen, and right on time too. I surrender to this perspective on a daily basis. This is so true Ian, through my experiences I have learned to “Let go and let God” When I struggle against the power that be I find it is a loseing battle. I lost my son-in-law recently to Cancer. He had hundreds of friends and tears filled the room. They were tears of healing and our grief has been spent because he is in pain no more and I can see his spirit smile.

  10. ian says:

    hi Carol, much love and healing thoughts to you and your family. You have a very healthy way of looking at life.

  11. ian says:

    hi Keith, one of the reasons that acceptance (or some other word like it) is important is because it prevents the blame game. If you start out accepting that things are the way they are, and discern that you are the right person to change them and now is the right time to change them, then you can do so without wasting energy on blame. On the other hand, if you spend your energy wishing things werent the way they are, your action may be full of rage rather than compassion. Also, acceptance is not passive. Its receptive and open. An open hand holds more water than a closed fist. Thats the way I see it right now anyway. I appreciate your inquiring mind, and passion for activism, very much and I want to encourage you to follow your intuition which always knows when to act, how to act and why you’re doing it.

  12. shereen says:

    I love this particular piece”I encourage everyone, theist or atheist, faith based or not, to build into your life a healthy sense of surrender. It is more rejuvenative than a vacation, and costs far less too.” thank you god bless you Ian. 

  13. Irene says:

    Ian, these are my favorites, actually Golden words: ” one of the reasons that acceptance (or some other word like it) is important is because it prevents the blame game. If you start out accepting that things are the way they are, and discern that you are the right person to change them and now is the right time to change them, then you can do so without wasting energy on blame. On the other hand, if you spend your energy wishing things werent the way they are, your action may be full of rage rather than compassion. Also, acceptance is not passive. Its receptive and open. An open hand holds more water than a closed fist. ” Thanks for such depth of thinking…

  14. ian says:

    thanks Irene- take care

  15. Gail Gardner says:

    You have become very wise and I believe the way we acquire wisdom is through the challenges placed before us. This is so true: 

     “I understand it to mean that you feel pain so deeply that it might as well be taking place in your own body or mind. AND you don’t rush to remove it (even if you could) because you don’t know the big picture as to whether there is some greater purpose to the pain. In effect, you let go of the outcome.”

     When we and young and truly care, we want to protect everyone from everything. As you get older and wiser you realize that would not be a good idea – even if it were possible – which it is not. 
     

  16. [...] can’t control. In the third article, I talk about empathy without becoming overwhelmed. In the fourth article, I explore the phrase “Hurts more, bothers you [...]

  17. Shannon Lell says:

    Ian, I have been struggling with this concept lately. At a moment of shear destitution, God showed me the need for surrender in 3-D. Literally, it came while watching The Life of Pi. Here is a more literary interpretation of what God wants us to know about the act of surrender along side diligent hard work. It is a story about a spiritual awakening to the lesson of surrender. http://wp.me/p11rFF-EE

  18. ian says:

    thanks for the comment Shannon. I read your article- well said. The movie impacted me also.