Revisiting the
Embarrassment
of Pain


Two years ago I wrote in a personal blog about a confusing and frustrating feeling which I named, “the embarrassment of pain.” I remember having reached a point in my exhausting struggle with depression that had left me stuck between bearing the immense and excruciating pain of continuing to go through each day not wanting to be alive, and feeling ashamed and embarrassed to be feeling this petty pain at all. At the time, I was feeling lonely, hopeless, and heartbroken. I had written, “I don’t know what to focus on, and taking a step back always leaves me feeling embarrassed for feeling so much pain at all, fixating on this at all.” I’ve since healed and recovered (to the extent which is possible in two years), but I’ve been wondering lately about this particular feeling of embarrassment. Once the glamorization of depression wears off, there seems to be nothing left which I feel triggers compassion from others; and if one’s life—however full of the tiniest pains and joys—doesn’t merit compassion, is that not a worse fate than a hopelessly romanticized existence?

The question then became: if I couldn’t even turn my pain into art (since art requires a genuine interest in the subject, a compassion of sorts), then is there any hope at all? And why did it seem like I was surrounded by a massive past and an encroaching present full of artists, writers, and creators who have been able to successfully express their beautifully tormented lives? Was my life not deserving of such expression because it was tormented but not beautiful? What do we do now—those whose torment is mundane, those whose pain is embarrassing?

This winter became summer for me as I travelled to São Paulo, Brazil to see my extended family, and perhaps that was the right amount of disorientation and time to dive nose deep into pages and pages of fiction to think about all of this again. Looking out into the forests of Campos do Jordão, a question I have feared all my life resurfaced: could it be true that some lives are simply more interesting than others? Why is it that some utterances—genuine, to the best of the utterer’s ability—are dismissed, unoriginal, embarrassing? I’ve been troubled by the question, “what makes a life compelling?” Is this a question that should even be asked? Isn’t every life compelling? And shouldn’t it follow that the telling of any life be similarly compelling?

I find myself constantly preoccupied not by making my mark on the world, but by living a compelling—an interesting life—no matter how much misery and suffering come about as result.

Why is it that the more inner the part of myself I enter into, the more I want to look away? There seems to be a central ugliness that is core to my being; one filled with insecurity and fear, and not the sort that evokes compassion from a casual passerby. When I bear witness to this most inner of selves, I am filled not with the comfort of “knowing thyself,” but with the horror that I do not—could not—love this creature. This all begs the question, just how much radical love would it take to see this life and love it, cherish it, admire it, and find it interesting?

On Repulsion

This past summer I watched Charlie Kaufman’s film Synecdoche, New York (2008). The main character, Caden, is a playwright whose life unravels over the course of the film as it is plagued by problems—a physical illness which is slowly eating away at him and making him appear increasingly revolting, a marriage that is humiliatingly falling apart, a debilitating loneliness and depression—all while he pushes himself harder into his work, building larger and more hyperrealist production sets. Caden’s larger-than-life work represents his (ultimately failed) attempt to save his life by romanticizing it, replicating it, uttering it into art. His large, expansive inner world eventually cannot hold, and it collapses into itself, having never been enough to rid him of the emptiness he feels.

After reflecting on Synecdoche, New York, I realized it was the first artistic depiction of depression that I’d seen that did not romanticize it (or rather, that did not prompt me to romanticize it). Truthfully, I pitied Caden. His life filled me with such a frustrating sadness: the similar yet more expansive feeling to seeing someone do something embarrassing and then recalling a thoroughly repressed memory of when you yourself did something similarly embarrassing; a wide-reaching, piercing self-pity. In the film, Caden’s life had become revolting, sad, flailing, and meaningless; as he attempted to fix it, to heal, and to find meaning, he only continued to fail—dragged down by the altogether repulsion of his attempts. It recalled for me the deep dives I have done into my inner self, expecting to find something worthwhile and compelling, but instead coming out only feeling repulsed. Is that all there is?

The romanticization of depression goes hand in hand with the nobility of the question, “what makes a life rich and meaningful?” Or, put in a different, more urgent way, “what makes a life worth living?” I believe in the centrality of depression to the human experience because of the importance of this question. Albert Camus famously wrote during his analyses of the absurd,

“There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that.”

And so the depressed person is akin to that tortured philosopher whose life is altogether a singular toiling over this essential question. All other manners of living are looked down upon, which is enough conceit to temporarily fuel the life of the depressed person.

Synecdoche, New York depicts depression from another angle, though, revealing how much sadder, uglier, and disgusting depression can be; how at the very center of everyone is a dangerous set of insecurities, a repulsive set of desires, and a debilitating amount of fear and emptiness. What follows is the clarity of having discovered a truth, and the anguish of the new questions which are born from this truth. Are all lives pitiful and sad at the core? Is it possible to live a wildly interesting, compelling, and truly meaningful life? Is it comforting to know that maybe no one does? And if some do live those lives, how awful a realization is it to discover that you are simply not one of those people? Must we really push ourselves to the ends of this earth just to make our lives a story worth telling? Shouldn’t this in some way be an availability, a birthright, to everyone? Is this preoccupation with living “interesting” lives merely a result of our fear that we, in fact, do not matter? (And where does that fear come from and isn’t it valid? Important?)

I don’t have answers, but I’d like to believe that every life is interesting and compelling. Every personal joy, pain, absurdity, intimacy and ordinary occurrence is deserving of being shared, appreciated, and witnessed—if not with another person, than alone with God.

Manners of Expression

I’ve learned, frustratingly and unwillingly, that the manner and form of the utterance matters. I recently watched Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade (2018), and found myself (expectedly) cringing in embarrassment at the middle school happenings of 13 year old Kayla, and the awful memories that they called to mind. Why do the real problems and distresses of teenagers often get dismissed as “angsty,” “cringey,” or “over-dramatic”? I remember being 15 and feeling like my life was incredibly interesting, full of longing and torment, joy and richness, and stimulation and curiosity. Yet, I can’t bear to read back on my writings from that time—they seem to absolutely ruin those deeply important and precious memories. I know many adults who still have the emotional maturity of a teenager, and I’m certain even famous writers might fall into this category—they are also over-dramatic, full of unnecessary darkness, and pitifully sad. Yet, the utterances of these adults are less likely to be called “cringey” or “angsty.” So, the manner of the utterance matters!

We learn over time how to tell the story of our lives in increasingly interesting, compelling ways, but often the central, essential truth of our being remains the same. This manner-of-utterance question lies in a gray area of the larger question at hand. The problem here seems to be the judgment of the listener, not the storyteller; further, the judgment seems to be cultivated by societal forces. Does it matter what other people think? Shouldn’t validation come from within or from some other-worldly/spiritual place? Humans have never been able to fully and reliably love, care for, or understand each other in the ways we deeply and desperately desire. Perhaps the validation of an utterance as interesting or compelling falls into this category of metaphysical things that we cannot perfectly provide for each other.

The flip-side of this sub-problem is our ability to utter. In his Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke writes,

“Things are not all so comprehensible and expressible as one would mostly have us believe; most events are inexpressible, taking place in a realm which no word has ever entered, and more inexpressible than all else are works of art, mysterious existences, the life of which, while ours passes away, endures.”

The sheer difficulty of accurately expressing a feeling, thought, or experience almost renders the entire problem of both living and expressing an interesting life void. Perhaps we may be able to live an interesting life, but what do we do now that we cannot even express it comprehensively or satisfactorily (or, to do so would take a lifetime of dedication)? One may argue that although we’re unable to love perfectly and wholly, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Using the same logic, although the saying—the expressing, the uttering—may be difficult, an essential part of us is called to try. There’s dignity to the attempt, and as Rilke would say, there is something mysterious and everlasting about a work of art which expresses.

Resolving Repulsion

A predicament arises when attempting to reconcile the deep ugliness of our core and the call to express our deepest selves. These two forces seem to be opposing one another: I want to live an interesting life, and tell it’s story truthfully and compellingly, yet the most fundamental truths about me are horribly sad, unappealing, or repulsive. It is no longer a question of how I utter these truths, since if they are expressed honestly (which is the goal), no manner of utterance can cover up their nature.

This dilemma, I feel, can only be resolved by the self. We have to ask ourselves: do I find my life compelling? This is a sister question to good old, “Is (my) life worth living?” I still believe Camus was correct in his urgent assertion that suicide is the only serious philosophical problem. Perhaps the daughter, then, of his assertion is the question of an interesting life. I may not feel suicidal all the time, but living is still torturous in that particular way if I feel my life is too pitiful to express honestly.

It becomes clear, then, that it ultimately must be ourselves who determine whether our lives are interesting. Utterance now becomes a question of courage. How do you convince someone who is disgusted by themselves to go off and tell someone about it? To utter is to dare: to dive deep into the self and see something ugly, and yet to still express it, own it, and share in it with others. It is a sacrifice of the self in a world that idolizes it, and claims to uphold, liberate, and empower it.

On Humility and Joy

Our drive to express may seem counter to other inner discoveries as well, namely the realization that we are inherently prideful and should strive for humility. Pride, the most foolish and timeless of all human faults, is detrimental to all parties involved, and is a force that works directly against sincerity, honesty, compassion, and understanding. In particular, it leads to envy and insecurity, which may be factors that lead a person to believe their life is not worth living. Within this framing, isn’t expression an act of pride? Isn’t the desire to lead an interesting life a product of envy? One might express their thoughts in order to (subconsciously or consciously) appear a certain flattering way; one might desire to lead a life that is “interesting” to the extent that it makes others jealous. This is certainly true—but isn’t there more to it? Why are we driven toward expression?

The most important feeling I’ve learned to experience is the joy of living. I say “important” because joy, I believe, captures the essence of everything good in life. Joy is a triumph—the ecstasy of beauty, the torment of love, the peace of tranquility, the unexplainable happiness of taking a walk beside nature—and it is the opposite of anxiety. I think within the framework of joy rather than pride, utterance can be done purely and simply for the sake of itself, and in appreciation of everything good. Likewise, when we truly love someone, we would travel across the world for them—just to make them mac and cheese, or help them with their socks—no matter the consequences.

I’d like to be able to frame the act of utterance as one of joy. There is a certain relief of expression that exists even in the worst places. When I am splayed across floor of my room, alone, in the middle of night, frustrated and crying, imagining all the ways I could end the pain, an act of utterance still manages to give me some relief, some small hope that maybe in the morning things will be better. In those moments I try to write, or paint, or play music—I think any act of expression helps.

Joy exists on a completely separate axis as the other emotions: one can feel happy, sad, exhausted, troubled, or confused while also feeling joy; depression exists in the realm of anxiety, though, and can co-exist with all those emotions as well—but not with the sort of lasting joy that people who have found God or the meaning of life have. I think expression, done as purely as possible, can bring us closer to this lasting joy. It is wonderful—joyful—to appreciate the world in full (warts and all), to feel even a little bit understood, to experience and be able to express an agonizing range of emotion, to love deeply and tragically.

In moments when we feel so low, so unworthy, so humiliated and pitiful, perhaps it’s then that it’s most important to go forth boldly and attempt to express the inexpressible anyway. Our aspirations toward humility can continue in harmony alongside our desires to live lives that are interesting and express the innermost happenings of our selves. Perhaps humble utterance is the ultimate act of worship—in sincere effort to turn our thoughts or feelings into art, we create a vessel through which others may bear witness to the complexity, beauty, and aching rawness of this world. Rilke insists that if one who aspires to write digs deep within themselves and finds the answer to the question, “must I write?” to be a strong and simple “I must”, then their life “must, right to its most unimportant and insignificant hour, become a token and witness of this impulse.” He instructs the young poet at this moment to, “try, as if you were one of the first men, to say what you see and experience and love and lose.” The desire to write can be broadened to be utterance, or the desire to express, and I believe that this impulse is vital. We must then “become a token and witness of this impulse” and as earnestly as possible express our lives. The act of expression will help us see all that makes life—our life in particular—worth expressing, worth living. All it takes is the courage to try.



December 31, 2018



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