Everyone suffers in life. Suffering is woven into every weft and strand of existence. To pluck it out would be to unravel life itself. From the beautiful and wealthy and talented, to the poor and homely and unskilled, suffering exists at every strata of society. Insects suffer, and whales suffer. Suffering knows no boundaries. For every living creature, there are only two certainties in life: death, and suffering.
Of course, if we shift the lens back to humans for the sake of this discussion (though I am of the firm belief certain animals suffer agonies more terrible by a thousandfold than those experienced by man), there are different degrees to suffering. A wealthy person living in a first-world country might feel as though their loneliness is carving them open like a knife, but would certainly not, if asked, trade places with someone who is actually being tortured and cut up somewhere in the world. A White person will still struggle in life to get where they want to be, like any human being—but their suffering is nevertheless still less than that of, say, a Black person, who, on top of the usual struggles of life, must deal with racial prejudices and the setbacks and reduced opportunities that come with being dark-skinned in a society under White hegemony. An emotionally-healthy person will suffer less than someone with mental illnesses. A woman, statistically, is likely to suffer more than a man. An able-bodied person will suffer less than someone with disabilities. A child of divorced parents suffers more than a child who grew up in a loving, cohesive family. Heck—you could even say sensitive people technically suffer more as we experience pain more strongly than someone who is thick-skinned. Life is not a level playing field, no matter how voraciously we may extol the values of justice, fairness, equality. If history and our present world is anything to go by, Earth is most definitely no utopia, and often downright hellish for many people.
However, while we might all suffer in various and complex ways, because we’re all individuals, we all deal with suffering differently. Very differently. Some people flare up in fits of rage. Others stew and simmer in their anger and misery for months until pimples pop out on their skin and cankersores on their tongue, emotional energy releasing itself in the form of physical symptoms. People cry alone, or on the shoulders of others. They scream into pillows, break things, laugh hysterically, hurt themselves. Some withdraw; others reach out, becoming more desperate for affection the more miserable they are; and still more grow detached, emotionally numbing themselves from both the pain and pleasures of life. Many escape into addictions, other worlds where they can forget their pain and troubles: videogames, sex, relationships, drugs, alcohol, fantasy. They retreat into denial, or lies, because the truth makes them want to tear their own heart out; and others put up barricades of selfishness and coldness, to protect themselves and gain some measure of security in a heartless and chaotic universe.
And some create art. They write books, make films, draw and paint. They make up tunes, construct pottery pieces or sculptures. They take the messy conglomeration that is life and try to cobble together something beautiful and interesting out of it to share with other people.
What these methods of coping with pain all have in common—except the last one—is that they all involve escape from the source of their suffering. They all involve directing one’s attention towards something else rather than the source of their troubles. It is easy to wriggle out of truly experiencing your pain when you are screaming so loudly the world contains nothing else. It is easy to turn away from your pain when you are preening yourself in front of a mirror and accumulating buckets of money. It is easy to turn away from your own pain when you are too busy hurting others.
Artists, however, do not have that luxury. They must face life and its pain, in all its glory, in order to create anything even slightly noteworthy. They have to dig their fingers into the blood and guts, even if the stench makes them want to throw up. They need to look in the Beast in the eye even if doing so makes them wet themselves. Then, through whatever medium they are working with, they must find a way to crystallise that pain, every facet and edge, for others to feel, understand, know and analyse.
It took a while for me to realise this. I have experienced a lot of pain in my life. Obviously nothing on the scale of extreme starvation or thirst, living as I do in a first-world country—but I know anxiety, I know depression, I know panic attacks, I know mental breakdowns, I know being desperately hungry yet psychologically unable to leave the house to buy anything from the grocery store, I know eating disorders, I know abusive and neglectful parenting, I know sensitivity, I know introversion, I know what it’s like to be different, I know loneliness and despair and self-hatred and shame, I know racism, I know poverty, I know the fear of becoming homeless, I know sexism. It’s not been easy. For the longest time, my coping mechanism was repression. To get on with my life, for years, I repressed my true identity, I repressed my anxiety, I repressed my internalized racism, I repressed my fear of men, I repressed my hunger urges, I repressed my loneliness and shame and self-hatred, I repressed thoughts of my father, I repressed my feelings, I repressed myself. I couldn’t even articulate any of my pain through writing; it was so immense, so complicated, twisted and gnarled together like the tangled roots of a tree.
So I bottled it down, in the hopes that it would all just go away—only to land myself in hospital for a suicide attempt. Luckily a highly unsuccessful one, but sobering nonetheless. But after a year or two passed, I fell back into my old patterns of repression. I knew this was the case when I found myself once again unable to connect with the characters’ pain in any of the books I read, to actually feel their turmoils and troubles as a naturally empathetic person would. I couldn’t even connect with my own characters, which was worse. Everything I wrote was terrible because there was no emotion behind it; I was maneuvering puppets in the hope that one of them would come alive and do the job for me. Quite quickly I realised the only way I would be able to write anything good in my life was if I opened my heart to and embraced my pain and suffering.
It was so hard. I had put the pain away in a box in the attic of my mind, where it sat, dusty and untouched, with several tons of bricks heaped upon it. I had treated it as someone might a poisonous spider: trap it, and hope it dies off on its own sooner or later. But pain isn’t like insects. Pain isn’t living. Pain is just dead memories, able to live on until the day we ourselves die. And I had to release it. I had to release agony, blood and broken bones.
I started off tentatively at first, picking up a file here and there, never upending the whole lot out onto the floor. For the first time in years, I thought of my father, the man who, quite frankly, was the sole perpetrator of a great deal of my woes as a child, and now also as an adult, for your childhood never leaves you. I dredged up one very, very painful memory: waiting at the train station in the middle of the night after a school event. My father could drive, owned a car, a very a nice one, in fact—yet he insisted on taking public transport whenever he deigned to take me places. As I sat there, on the bench, in the gloom and the silence (he spoke little whenever he was only in my company), kicking my legs and staring down at the faint, moonlit glisten on the wet asphalt, my father got up, and walked away, disappearing into the darkness.
My head jerked up. I looked around, peering into the rain-spattered blackness. I still remember the sensation of my long hair, swishing over my shoulders, as I turned my head and looked and looked. Where did he go? I was alone, in the darkness, in a strange place, in the middle of the night. My terror was so thick I felt as though a piece of cloth had been forcibly crammed down my throat, but that was nothing compared to the sting of abandonment. This wasn’t the first time I had felt abandoned by him. He used to take himself on holidays during Christmas when I had never left the country in my life and speak not a word about it and grumble when my mother asked him for grocery money when he came back. He used to buy himself suits and gadgets, deck out his room in the finest sound system under the sun, then complain when I needed money for an excursion. He used to buy ridiculously lavish presents for the daughter of his employee as I stood by and watched, sick with jealousy, and forget my birthdays, and my siblings’ birthdays. I existed for much of my childhood in a state of bewildered misery. But this was new. A fresh form of abandonment. This was blatant. He had actually, physically stood up and walked away. He had left me behind.
No. No! No, no! I stood up and stumbled along the train station; there were lights, fluorescent ones, but only a few, the reach of their luminescence fading away to a pale silver a couple of metres beyond the benches facing the tracks. I ran, into the darkness, to find my father. With each step, my heart roared my fury and despair. One step. Why don’t you love me? Another step. Love me! Please, Daddy, please! Another step. Why would you do this? Another. I hate you! I hate you so much I could kill you! I hate you, hate you, hate you!
Eventually, after much sobbing and stumbling in the darkness, feeling terribly disorientated, like some planet bumped out of its orbit, I found him sitting on a bench on the other side of the platform, absorbed in his phone. He didn’t look up as I sat down beside him, tears trekking down my cheeks. I said, “Why did you do that.” I said it very calmly, calm and serene, as my body shook. He had given me a fright—I was only seven—but to look at him, you would not know it. He just sat in silence for a minute or so longer, looking down at his phone—and then he stood up again and walked away. I sat there, dumbstruck. I didn’t understand what was going on or what he was doing, only that it was somehow very childish, and that it hurt. Again, I got up, and I followed him. I followed him quite desperately, a tiny figure, tottering along in the darkness, frightened and determined both at once. Sometimes, when I look back on this incident, I almost wish I had thrown myself down onto the tracks. Perhaps he would have paid attention then, said something to me, at least to save his own skin. A child lying dead on the tracks and her father nearby doesn’t look good. It would be bad for his company’s reputation.
This time, it took longer to find him, I went around the platform three times, then went around back again and found him back in the spot where he was before, sitting down. Again, I sat down beside him. And then the train came, so my father had to stop the game he was playing with me, and I got on and sat beside him on the train and looked out the window as he sat there looking down at his phone. Looking back on his incident, I see it as a blatant expression of his distaste for responsibility. He was a selfish man, that was certain, but more than that, he was a childish man, who desired no commitments in life except the fulfilment of his own pleasures. For someone like him, three children clinging to his ankles served only as deadweight. Heaven knows why he had us in the first place, if he didn’t even mean to take care of us. This incident at the train station, when my mother and brother and sister wasn’t around, was his way of telling me he didn’t want to be responsible for me. I was the first child. I started off the chain reaction. He not only did not love me—he didn’t want me to exist. He wanted to get rid of me, leave me behind, and like a stray dog at a pound who loves his owner no matter how badly he is mistreated, I played right into his hand and followed him, tongue hanging and panting for acceptance and affection. For him to keep me, to pet me, to love and to approve.
As this memory tore through me, I felt as though my skin was being unzipped, organs spilling out hot and steamy onto the carpet. I wanted to—to hurt myself. No, to hurt him. I wanted him to feel just a fraction of the agony I suffered under his roof, as his daughter. I felt broken. I felt unloved. I felt disgusting. I couldn’t look at myself. I hated being inside my own skin. I wanted to shed it, slip free and twine through the air into some more pleasant sphere.
Instead, I just cried. As you can expect, these tears were long overdue. I cried and cried, letting myself feel the pain, luxuriating in it, even, submerging myself in the misery, wallowing in the broken glass shards until my body was cut and bleeding from head to foot, and then I stopped crying, and got up. I wiped away the blood, tended to my wounds. I took care of myself. And I could suddenly feel again. My emotions came back. I could properly get into the heads of characters, feel their pain and suffering as if it were my own. Reclaiming my pain allowed me to write.
So my advice is, especially for artists and creative types out there who might be reading this, the best thing to do with pain is to embrace it and learn from it. Use it to your advantage. You might as well; you’ve certainly suffered for it. Use it as fodder to create good art, to provide the truest and best reflection of the human experience as you can through your work. Take what was, in the moment, ugly, disgusting and repulsive, manure and droppings, and use it to fertilise soil, make it grow, flourish, bloom and make something beautiful for others to bask in. Art comes from pain. It is terrible to experience, but it is also what connects us to other human beings. We write and paint and draw with our blood, use our skin as paper, sacrifice ourselves, body and soul, to our craft, to one day finally emerge from the dirt and the mud and the grass, holding aloft our creation to the sunlight: a globed fruit, sweeter than honey and bright as a jewel.