In these posts I am not distinguishing pain and suffering. I am using these words and others to mean the same thing, as we do in everyday speech.
Pain can be due to any aspect of our life.
- Sometimes it is purely physical – we hit our thumb with a hammer, we cut ourself with a knife, we have a degenerative disease.
- Sometimes it is our thoughts and feelings in a memory. Past humiliations and shames aren’t pleasant to remember.
- Sometimes we don’t know the cause, or it is a mix. Depression can feel far worse than most pain with a purely physical cause, and it probably isn’t for most a pure chemical imblance.
If we know the cause then this can provide guidance to what we do about it.
- A friend of mine had been working hard at self development. He was working on an electrical project and felt something funny happen with his eye. He wondered if the project he was working on wasn’t in line with his vision for his life. If there were things he didn’t want to see and so on. It took him a little while to realise that he’d gotten a piece of metal in his eye.
- No amount of good food will make up for a sense of life’s meaninglessness.
- Loving relationships won’t help you think through an intellectual dilemma (though depending on the relationships other people may be able to think through the problem for you or help you do the thinking).
- A good sense of connection to life purpose won’t make you healthy if you eat only pizza and only drink coke. (Unless you have been remarkably lucky with the genes you were born with I suppose.)
Knowing the cause can offer useful guidance in how we respond to our suffering. It doesn’t always but it can.
Pain Relief is Good
In my view the idea that ‘pain is good for you’ is flat out wrong.
Is it possible that a bad and painful experience can lead to benefits for us? Yes.
But: The experience it leads to depends on your response. The credit for the growth goes to you it is not to the credit of the pain or the bad experience.
In my view the saying ‘that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ is grandiose tosh. What doesn’t kill you can leave you maimed. Those in wheelchairs after a car accident are not stronger than they were before.
Can people who go through catastrophic experience discover resources in themselves that they didn’t suspect? Yes.
But: the resources were already there, the catastrophe didn’t create them. And it is my view that there are far better ways to get at these resources.
In the West we have the great privelege access to excellent drugs to alleviate pain. We should use these resources well.
Pain and Suffering are Tiring
An intial jolt of pain, like sitting on a pin can wake us up. But when pain is sustained it is tiring, it takes it out of you.
- And with severe pain, the pain itself can be nauseating; so that you don’t feel like eating.
- And you may not feel like exercising either.
- And you may not have the energy for connecting with others.
Which can become a vicious circle.
It will depend on how isolated you are. When you are in pain you may think that asking friends for help is an imposition.
Here’s may challenge to you: If you found out a friend was in pain and they asked you for help how would you feel and respond?
- Perhaps you would be upset that they hadn’t told you.
- Perhaps you would have wanted to do something for them.
- Perhaps you would have asked what you could do for them.
Have an honest think about what your friends are like and then consider asking for help.
What you ask for will depend on the incinations of your friends and your own situation. Some people like to get into a project like remodelling your bed, others don’t mind coming over to have a chat and to tidy a table.
And it can be fine to ask for little bits of help. It is fine to ask someone to come and just sit with you. Tell them that is what you want and that you may not speak to them but that having them there will feel good. (You will need to have a way for them to know when to leave.)
“Taking Control” (or doing what you can, or putting yourself in the picture)
At some point it will probably be important to get the sense that you are running your life, not the pain or the condition that is causing the pain.
There are different approaches to this.
1. Some people find it helpful to relate to the pain as a person, creature or object. The ‘Pain Monster’ or whatever it might be. They find ways to fight and tame, or at least exert some control over, the monster.
2. Another approach is to have a larger purpose and to be determined that the pain won’t stop you from having fulfilling purpose.
- You may not be able to complete as many paintings but you will keep producing some.
- You won’t let the pain end your relationships – even if this does mean using text, phone, letters or email rather than seeing people face-to-face as you’d prefer.
- You may not be able to attend your spiritual gathering but you may be able to continue with some of the devotional practise.
- You may be able to continue with what you value to a lesser extent.
3. Awareness of the pain itself. This can have various aspects.
- Watching the physical sensations and actions – clenching, jabbing, nausea, vertigo or whatever.
- Seeing if there is a rhythm of intensifying and diminishing
- Also knowing if there are triggers that bring the pain on or make it worse – food or particular activities, sights or smells that remind you of past events or perhaps particular kinds of sound are painful.
- As well as what brings relief. This may be heat or cold, food or stretching, resting or activity, company or solitude, beautiful scenery or massage, music or artworks . . . whatever works for you.
Having this awareness gives you a distance from the pain, the sense that there is a difference between you (who can observe) and the pain (which you observe).
It is my opinion that: Distractions are good. If something can take your mind off the pain that is very worth knowing and absolutely worth using. On something of a tangent from which – don’t underestimate laughing and comedy. They really can lift your mood and help you feel better.
Which feels to me like enough for one post. In the coming posts I’ll talk more about dealing with your own pain and then about responding to another’s pain.
I hope this relates. Comments are most welcome.
I'm Evan Hadkins. I'm Evan Hadkins. To find out how to live a more satisfying life you can download my manifesto on living authentically. It is a book of exercises to guide you to finding, nourishing and living from the core of who you are.
If you would like me to write about some aspect of living an authentic life please don’t hesitate to get in touch. There is a box in the sidebar where you can leave a question anonymously if you wish, or you can email me, use the contact page, or comment on this post.