Kahlil Gibran’s ‘On Pain’ Explains the Necessity of Heartbreak

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

I return to Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet in every season of my life. Maybe it’s because, as a Lebanese person, my father handed me Gibran’s best-known body of work before I was even old enough to grasp its philosophy. But I love the thin book of poetry because it’s organized by subject, meant to offer wisdom on the cyclical nature of emotions as you move through life. There are chapters On Love, On Joy and Sorrow, and On Work. When I am hurt, I turn to  “On Pain,” which reflects the inevitability and necessity of heartbreak.

“On Pain” is one of Gibran’s shortest and least resolved poems. It opens with a powerful and clarifying description:

Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.

Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.

Gibran’s poem offers little comfort or advice for how to vanquish the feeling. Instead, we are urged to welcome our pain with fresh eyes as a wondrous and remarkable force:

And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields.

And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.

Pain, just like other emotions, is fleeting. It comes and it goes, only coming to an end when our earthly bodies do. But there is one clean truth:

Much of your pain is self-chosen.

And yet:

It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self.

Therefore trust the physician, and drink his remedy in silence and tranquility.