(Note: Awhile back, my blogger friend and fellow teacher, Pumpkin Delight, posted her answers to a questionnaire that had once been a popular party game around the turn-of-the-century. The writer Marcel Proust completed this questionnaire, twice, and his answers were published in Andre Maurois’ book, Proust: Portrait of a Genius. To this day, Vanity Fair magazine uses this set of questions in a regular feature.
The lure of thoughtfully participating in a game played by Proust is really too much for me to resist. My intent is to create intermittent posts out of my answers as I complete them. This post is my answer to the second question. My answer to the first one is here. )
What is your greatest fear?
Pain pays the income of each precious thing. –William Shakespeare
Somewhere I read that Americans’ greatest fears are public speaking and death, in that order. I can honestly say that neither of these make my list. I love being in front of an audience and death doesn’t haunt me. My greatest fear is pain and suffering.
I recognize that by confessing this I’m outing myself as a very fortunate man, there are many more horrible things that people have gone through, but one of my most harrowing personal experiences was the day of my appendectomy. I awoke with a slightly unsettled stomach, and as the day wore on it grew worse until I was curled into the backseat of my wife’s car as she drove me to the emergency room. The intensity of the pain continued to grow for what felt like several hours as they ran tests to rule things out. We were told it was probably appendicitis and I would eventually receive pain medication, but they didn’t want to mask any symptoms until they were sure. So in the meantime I suffered.
I’m not talking about fearing your run-of-the-mill kind of pain here. In our preschool, it’s a rare 15-minute increment that goes by without someone collecting an “owie” of some kind. That’s the “good” pain. Pitiable, difficult, but ultimately it’s an essential aspect of learning. Education is often light and joyful, but it’s just as often painful. There are some lessons that can only be learned through pain. For instance, one of our most frequently trotted out preschool mantras is: “The best way to learn about asphalt is to fall on it.”
Comparing bloody owies is perhaps the simplest and most engaging of preschool small group activities. Typically, the kids can’t wait to pull up their pant leg or push up a sleeve to show off their latest abrasion. And every one of them comes complete with a cautionary tale, which we share in as much grisly detail as possible. It’s a chance to talk about the pain, the healing, and a reminder of the lesson learned. I always share Teacher Tom’s patented bloody owie axiom, “If you have more than 2 bloody owies you’re not being careful enough. If you don’t have any bloody owies you’re being too careful. One or 2 bloody owies is the right amount.”
We don’t just learn through physical pain, of course. The emotional pain that comes from being rejected, insulted, or separated from a parent is also part of education. If someone is crying, it’s almost always a sign that someone is learning, as painful as it might be. It’s impossible to always keep it in focus because as adults we naturally want to sooth the crying child, and we should, but at the same time we have to know that some destinations can only be reached through pain.
It’s not just pain, but suffering I fear, for both myself and all of you. Suffering, to me, is the unnecessary prolongation of pain beyond its ability to teach anything worth knowing. Nothing valuable is learned, for instance, by those who are starving in Darfur and other blighted places around the world. Nothing valuable is learned when a prisoner is tortured. Nothing valuable is learned through the nightmare of living with an abusive spouse or parent. Indeed, suffering teaches only one thing: that life is hell and the other humans are its devils. That’s one awful thing to teach.
Of course, what I experienced that day in the emergency room could hardly be called suffering, and in fact the doctors were doing everything they could to assuage it as quickly as possible. Soon enough I was floating on a cloud of Demerol, then into a deep sleep, interrupted by occasional glimpses of my loved ones standing at my bedside.
It’s the unalleviated suffering I fear. If evil exists, this is where it is manifest. If I have any religion at all its fundamental tenant is that I must do what I can to bring an end to suffering. Life is not hell and the other humans are not devils. That is the most important thing we can teach and the only way to do that is to bring an end to suffering wherever it is found.