A woman with a beaming smile and lively eyes asked my husband if she could squeeze in next to him on the bus home from the Hollywood Bowl last night.  Ever the chivalrous bus rider, Dave stood up and offered his seat.  She thanked him, plopped down next to me laughing and said, “My knees are killing me.  If he hadn’t got up, I’d have sat on his lap.”  So began the story of chronic pain in her knees, back and neck, and her compassionate response to her own suffering.

“Each day I have a choice.  I can either complain about my problems or be grateful to be alive, ask for help, and hope for the best.”  After 30 years serving with the same company she took early retirement due to disability from a car accident.    “I loved my job, but I just couldn’t keep it up with this pain.  But, I’m having a great time.  I do things I love. I spend time with friends, go to great concerts like this.  Everybody has something to deal with.  This just happens to be my lot in life. I am a blessed woman.”

life without limbs

I told her about Nick Vujicic a man born with no arms or legs who made a similar decision and at 25 plays golf, swims, just got married, and is an inspirational speaker traveling throughout the world to encourage others to dream big. Like her, Nick made a choice to make the most of what he had, rather than get stuck in the negativity that our human brains are wired to hold onto.

Pain is human.  We hurt in response to the limitations, traumas and losses of life.  Some physical limitations, like Nick’s, are permanent.  Although as a man of great faith, he believes that God might do a miracle and give him arms and legs some day.  Some physical pain is also permanent.  The emotional and mental pain that accompanies physical problems is negotiable.  It will come.  It’s a fact of life.  But we get to choose how we will respond to it.

Human brains are hard-wired to hold onto negativity.  In our distant past consciousness of negative events had the most survival value.  As neuropsychologist Rick Hanson puts it, developmentally the brain is like teflon for the good and velcro for the bad.  He says that rule #1 on the Serengeti was “Don’t be lunch.

When we choose to respond compassionately and choose to look for the good, we’re laying down new tracks in our neural pathways that, given time, will become a new way of being in our bodies and in our lives.

My bus-mate got off before I could catch her name or thank her appropriately.  But I write this blog as my tribute to her and Nick, and all those who’ve shared their stories of physical hardship with me in individual work, groups and retreat settings.  Your courage to move toward your suffering and find more life-giving ways of responding to limitations and pain inspires me to do the same.  Thank you for being my teachers.