It’s October and in regions of the U.S. that actually have seasons, people are raking leaves and preparing their gardens for winter by combining dead plants and kitchen scraps into compost piles. Some add worms to this mix. Here in northern California, gardening–and composting–happens pretty much year round.
I’ve shared my general disinterest in nature before, which definitely extends to the process of transforming rotting vegetation into nutrient-rich compost for fertilizing gardens. However, I’m intrigued by composting as a metaphor for coping with stuff–including chronic pain and stress and, you know, life, which keeps happening in spite of our best laid plans.
Composting makes something useful out of dead stuff, leftover stuff, stuff that might at first seem to be just waste materials with no value. I am intrigued by the element of alchemy or magic that sparks the transformation of rot–not into something great, but into matter that will, in turn, facilitate the growth of something else. It takes time and heat and air for the rot to get far enough along that it becomes a powerful supplement and catalyst for growth.
Lately, I feel like my brain is composting some of my leftover matter, particularly pain. Mental compositing is every bit as messy as real-world compositing, albeit less gross. It takes place in the virtual world of the mind, where the mess is a tangled confusion of thoughts, emotions, habits, and memories–big and small–that break down into a rich, bio-psycho-social-emotional brain compost.
Much of my pain is phantom limb pain, which is to say, the result of different neurons firing my brain than the ones that fire when I bang my (still attached) ankle or cut a finger. The limb is gone, but the pain remains, a leftover capacity for a limb that no exists, which always seems to me to be a waste of my brain’s efforts.
Periods of time spent mired in pain or other unpleasant symptoms can feel like pure waste, as though nothing could possibly come from suffering that is worth salvaging. My mother is fond of saying, “This too shall pass,” during difficult times. And I always think, “good riddance!”
But perhaps wishing for pain to just go away is misguided; maybe composted pain and suffering provides fertile ground to grow useful insights, gut responses, preferences, creativity, and productivity. I try to imagine the virtual air, light, and heat of my brain breaking down pain, wondering what nutrients might emerge that would fuel my creativity, curiosity, or capacity for caring.
I want to clarify here that I am definitely not arguing in favor of the notion that pain and joy are mutually dependent, such that the more pain we feel, the deeper our capacity for joy, or in my metaphor, the more composted pain, the better thinkers, creators, or spouses we will be. I do not believe that pain automatically makes us more loving, moral, or brilliant people. Hazel Grace in The Fault in our Stars said it best:
Without Pain, How Could We Know Joy? (This is an old argument in the field of Thinking About Suffering, and its stupidity and lack of sophistication could be plumbed for centuries, but suffice it to say that the existence of broccoli does not in any way affect the taste of chocolate.)
While pain is not required to make us better or more joyful people (and for some people can even have the opposite effect), I think perhaps pain breaks down and composts with other elements of our experience to support new growth.
It is up to us to determine which seeds we plant and nurture in our individual brain compost. Now more than ever, I want to plant joy and kindness, piling on compost to help them survive in the current, disheartening environment.
So compost the broccoli and pass me some more chocolate.