Photo Credit: Bigstock (nolte)

I’m in my therapy office, sitting on a beach ball, slowly sinking to the floor.

I had arrived in a frenzy of Monday morning doing and thinking, to find the ball with a note attached, saying, “Just a visual reminder. We love your blog!” Grateful for the affirmation and for my people, I’d set about deflating the ball before my first appointment.

So I sit on the ball and the air hisses and the clock ticks as the ball slowly—oh so slowly—begins to shrink. Forced into a rare moment of stillness, I look around, and this is what I see:

Three diplomas representing ten years of my life.


A framed clinical psychologist license representing another two.


And a shelf full of books representing years and years of accumulated knowledge.


I’ve tended to act as if the harder I work, the more I achieve, and the more I learn, the farther ahead I will get in life. But ahead of what, exactly? Other people, I suppose. Yet, as the beach ball forces me to slow down—to sit still with myself—I become aware of what I’m really trying to stay ahead of: my pain.

The feeling that I’m less than everyone else. Smaller. Lower.

I’ve spent my life in competition, because competition differentiates. Separates. Competition offers the possibility of leap-frogging, of going from less to more, smaller to bigger, lower to higher.

Pain, on the other hand, can’t elevate you above anyone. Because regardless of how hard we compete, in the end, pain and loss and suffering come for every one of us. In the end, they expose all our games of competition as one big game of charades. Eventually, pain and loss always ring the final bell. They overthrow every kingdom.

Suffering is the great equalizer.

The dictionary defines “equalizer” as anything that makes us alike in value, rank, or merit. From herniated disks to our herniating loneliness, from unexpected divorces to unexpected diagnoses, from massive disappointment to mass shootings, every single one of us will eventually be equalized by pain and suffering. Our hierarchies will be erased and the truth revealed:

We’re all just humans existing on the same level playing field.

Most of us live in fear of this eventuality. Some of us get depressed or anxious when faced with the reality of mortality and our frail humanity. Some of us get angry and aggressive. And some of us just worker harder and faster, learn more, and climb higher.

Yet, if we allow it, our pain can lead us home…

Our family is being swept along in a river of people, flowing down a sidewalk in the midst of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. We cross a busy intersection and, on the other side, a ragged-looking man sits with his sign. The sign says he’s a veteran and he’s hungry. He’s missing fingers. Perhaps they were lost to foreign enemies. Or maybe they were loss to the domestic enemy called homelessness and frostbite.

Either way, his plight is hard to ignore.

Yet, swept along in the river of immaculate people, that is exactly what we do. Until a hand clutching the back of my shirt stops me. It’s my oldest son, Aidan. His eyes are wet, as he pleads with me for a dollar to give to the man. I give it to him, and Aidan fights his way upstream, as people continue to flow past him to their destinations.

He hands the man the money. The man thanks him. It’s the sincerest sound I’ve ever heard. Aidan looks him in the eye, and says with the same kind of sincerity, “You’re welcome.”

Aidan felt his own pain, and it led him to create an island of unloneliness in a river of humanity.

Our pain can lead us home by leading us to create a home, right here in the middle of this broken humanity.

Pain can make a young boy beg on behalf of the begging man—the man who is not lower or less than, because the man and the boy share the common ground of disappointment and rejection and loneliness. Indeed, it can lead all of us home by making every stranger a brother or a sister in this struggle we call being alive.

And we don’t have to wait until our pain overflows unavoidably and uncontrollably—we can choose to let it out of the beach ball of our hearts. Now.

We can feel the loneliness.


We can feel the sadness and the uncertainty.


We can feel the fear and the frantic scrambling to keep it at bay.


When we allow ourselves to feel our pain, it will not make our pain disappear, but it will redeem it. Because redemption isn’t always about getting rid of our pain.

Sometimes, redemption is about choosing to live our pain differently.

What if we lived our pain like a beach ball

that slowly deflates,

until we’re all sitting on the same, common ground?


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Dr. Kelly Flanagan
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