Suffering and Thriving – #2 Responding to Your Own Pain Part 2

by Evan on 2013/03/25

 

Pain and Suffering Will Probably Mean Adjusting Expectations
Expectations and attitudes to yourself, others and the future.

 

Expectations of the Future
You will probably respond to pain as to an emergency. This is usually the right thing to do – get up off that pin!

When pain is chronic a different approach is needed. You will need a way to take a long-term view.

You may need to access others’ experience and expertise for this.

  • This may mean a health care person, or a support group – face-to-face or online; or talking things through with a friend.
  • Coping with pain you can end up in continual ‘fire-fighting’ mode. Which may lead to things piling up and adding extra stress, which none of us need – and you certainly don’t when you are dealing with pain.

And then you may need to make adjustments to your lifestyle or environment or both. Which may be easy once you realise what they are; or may be extensive and mean getting help from others.

 

This can involve things like:

  • prevention strategies – not getting tired, not doing things you used to love which now cause pain
  • new habits – putting in the initial energy to develop a habit so you don’t have to think about everything every time
  • drug management – remembering to take pain killers before the pain gets bad so they have time to work

 

Expectations about who you are and what you can do
Being in pain and all the consequences it brings means you may not be able to do what you planned on doing.

  • Paying off a mortgage
  • Going on a trip
  • Finishing a course of study . . .

 

It may mean that you can’t do what you once could.

  • The sport that revitalised you
  • Reading or listening to music for extended periods, or even,
  • Sitting in the one place for very long

 

Which may mean that you need to alter your sense of who you are.

  • The person who could take on anything
  • The person who could rely on reasonable health
  • The person who could usually get on with doing what they wanted to do (even if it wasn’t a very big thing)

Which isn’t easy for anyone. Let alone when you are in pain!

 

In which case you will probably be going through a period of mourning. And this can be stunning in its intensity. Mourning can include rage and despair. As if the pain wasn’t enough to deal with already. You may be quite shocked by the strength of your feelings.

  • When mourning it is important to be kind to yourself.  Pampering in a good way is entirely in order. Some chocolate as a treat is good – eating a box of chocolates for lunch every day; not so much.

 

  • Your mourning will have its own time and rhythm, to some extent you go with the flow. I don’t think there is one right way or time to mourn – despite what experts and their wretched texts (yes I am thinking of theDSM-V; which wants to pathologise mourning if it takes longer than two weeks – two weeks!) might say. It is usual to find that mourning goes in waves and can be triggered unexpectedly.

 

  • And it is helpful to express the feeling (whatever the feeling) in a way that leaves you feeling good.
      • This means expressing the feelings (sadness, frustration, rage, despair, whatever) as much as they need to be expressed.
          • You may need to be by yourself so you don’t feel embarrassed or that you are burdening others with ‘your stuff’.
          • You may need the support of others to let go and keep going until you are finished.
          • You may need to do it in little pieces – so you don’t feel overwhelmed or end up not able to do what you need to.
          • You may prefer to set aside a slab of time so you can do it totally and have nothing else to focus on.
      • When you have expressed your feeling(s) enough you will find that you are thinking of other things to do. This is the signal that you have expressed yourself enough (for now).
  • However, your feeling are not your thoughts; and your emotions don’t run on the timetable that you think they should. And getting annoyed and frustrated about this is something else to express.

 

The Big Question: Pain and Meaning

This is a perennial of philosophy and theology. The big issue will be decided by your own spirituality.

  • Whether you believe the world is random or exquisitely determined or that there is meaningful choice in a somewhat determined world.
  • Whether you believe the material world is real or something we largely don’t understand or that is simply an illusion.
  • Whether you approach your suffering as surrendering to what is or a challenge to choose against what is.

All of these are possibilities – and whichever you start with you may find that your suffering tests your approach. You may find that your old belief or practise is no longer adequate to your experience (- and why should it be? Your experience is new and so what worked for your old way of life may not work for a new experience.)

 

However there is a much smaller scale where this problem occurs too. The pain is something that you personally (in your daily life, specific relationships, with your own tasks and responsibilities) need to get through.

This can seem trivial compared to the big picture stuff.

An Australian philosopher, Rai Gaita, set out to study people dealing with death (in this case people dying from cancer). He was initially disappointed – these people weren’t discussing philosophy (the meaning of life, death and meaning, pain and purpose) but practical stuff (where to get a wig, how to talk to others about what you are going through, how to cope with domestic chores). Until he realised that these people were being true to life – they were dealing with real and urgent problems and looking for the best way to do it.

While the big picture can be essential; the small details matter too (and are often where the rubber of the big picture hits the road of real life).

 

Probably the person who is best known for dealing with pain and meaning is Viktor Frankl because of his book Man’s Search for Meaning.
When imprisoned by the Nazi’s he found that having something to live for was often the difference between life and death. Some of those without something to live for (even if young and fit) committed suicide; some who were old or ill survived if they had something that they wished to do (a vocation to pursue, a relationship to resume, or whatever).

Frankl (from my memory) famously said: Man’s final freedom is the attitude that he adopts to unavoidable suffering.

There are two words that need to be paid attention to in that statement: “unavoidable” and “final”.

“Unavoidable”. He is not saying that suffering is somehow good for you. Nor that it somehow makes you stronger or a better person. (Most of those who run this line have lived quite privileged lives. Not all but most.) He is not advocating avoiding pain killers.

“Final”. There is lots of freedom before our final freedom. There is no reason not to rejoice in the variety or possibilities we have.  You can choose to some extent:

  • who you relate to
  • how your room or desk is organised
  • the kind of entertainment you engage with
  • how you spend your spare money (if you have some)

However it is worth pointing out, as Frankl uncompromisingly does, that your attitude can influence your experience.

(This is quite different to those who aren’t in pain telling those who are suffering what they should do. This is usually those not in pain wanting to avoid the reality of suffering and results in callous behaviour and indifference rather than compassion.)

This attitude you adopt may be about small things. The meanings we have are usually at the small scale. Not many of us live to change the world or create a major innovation. It is far more usual that you want to finish a project at work or in your garden; or see a niece finish school, or see your parents settled for their old age or see an event you have helped organise come off.

It is at this scale that you will usually encounter meaning and the challenge of your suffering. It is here that we you will usually exercise your freedom.

 

I hope this post has been helpful. I do realise that talking about pain can sound awfully trivial. However, avoiding the subject gives the impression that it doesn’t exist or isn’t as common as it is – and I don’t want to perpetuate the pretence.  And I hope these few thoughts are useful.

Any and all comments are most welcome. If you have ways that have helped you in dealing with pain please share them. If you would simply like to tell your story, please do that too.

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.

 

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