I believe that not only is pain relative amongst us, but also relative within us.
For example, just because I have broken my collarbone and you have broken your collarbone, there can be no way to identify whose pain was worse. Your broken collarbone may hurt worse than mine, or it may not. There is literally no way for us to know, and may never be.
Additionally, I believe that breaking my collarbone today will find a level of pain that I attribute to it that may be adjusted in the future should my appendix explode. Today’s pain can only be measured in terms of the known pain of previous existence, not any future pain.
Personally, I’ve never broken a bone, and I’ve lead a charmed life of such relatively low pain that the worst pain I’ve ever endured was a sinus infection. I doubt this pain can even be close on the same (impossibly) objective scale of pain as say, childbirth or a heart attack.
It is impossible to recognize where individual emotional pain would fall compared to the pain endured by the character of Lee Chandler in this film. One can imagine that most viewers can clearly identify the source of their own peak emotional pain. Thanks to Casey Affleck’s subtle performance, demonstrated through clear body language, we can see how he deals with the pain, and doesn’t. The narrative constantly flows in and around his perception. Nearly every single scene is afforded his perspective, past and present setting the tone for the future. The handful that don’t are offered up to deepen our understanding of the second lead, Patrick Chandler, played by Lucas Hedges. Their pain is their own, as is how they deal with it.
I believe that without sadness we cannot appreciate joy, because joy is as relative as pain. I have a hard time remembering the times of greatest joy in the same method as I can single out the greatest pain. Perhaps because happiness is so intertwined with sadness. When the movie ends, it provides cathartic relief, a balance to the sadness in knowing that you get to decide how happy the stories of the characters can become. The movie certainly prepares you for the idea that nothing is easy, including the lives as they continue offscreen, but it gives you just enough hope that the characters will find happiness.
I find happiness in realizing that I get to decide how a respond to the sad times. I find, that at my age, I can understand that the sadness and pain is only relative, and that I only know it in terms of the joy I’ve known.