We have built a fascinating world. We’ve invented so many ways to alleviate pain, discomfort and hard work. And for good reason: too much pain debilitates, too much hard work impedes progress. Without making food, shelter, heat and other necessities easier to produce and obtain, we wouldn’t have electricity and antibiotics.
But too much of a good thing is still too much. We are a species of excess - we’ve prioritized expediency, ease and we chase the high of an eternal state of “happiness” without even knowing what that means. But are we even built for such a state?
In the words of Nassim Taleb from his book Antifragile:Things That Gain from Disorder; “Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.” Humans are made for adversity, but in the grand scheme of things, we don’t have much of it anymore. And we are eliminating more and more of it every day.
Every word is put under a microscope just in case it may offend, competition is discouraged so people don’t have to feel the sting of losing, microaggressions are regarded as absolute truth (heads up, they aren’t) and words are considered violence. All this is highlighting is the fact that we simply don’t know pain and hardship. When life contains true adversity, we don’t create the imaginary variety.
When we are insulated from negative feelings, discouraged from healthy aggression and our needs are either taken care of or extremely easy to obtain…well, the animal in us is going to find another way to express itself. I think that’s what the state of our society comes down to right now. We fight with each other over imaginary things because humans are made to fight. We compete with each other about who’s day was worse, who’s trauma is bigger or who’s childhood was worse. Instead, some part of us knows life should be a bigger challenge than it really is, so we make it bigger in our minds to create a stress reaction to appease that primal part of us.
That’s not to say that people don’t go through real abuse and hardship, of course we do. Yet we still go to great lengths to avoid discomfort if at all possible. We weasel our way around it to the absolute best of our ability. And then we turn around and create some other form of discomfort to put in it’s place.
Comfort & Pain
Comfort doesn’t always mean something feels good, and discomfort doesn’t mean it feels bad. It’s comfortable to stay in a career that you hate rather than do something completely different – there’s nothing immediately in front of you to be afraid of in the face of what you already know. It’s easy to stay in your circle of family and friends who don’t push you to be better, there are no targets to risk missing. And if you’ve ever gotten a deep tissue massage or gotten a runner’s high then you understand physical discomfort that feels damn good.
Pain is a funny thing too. Imagine you accidentally hit your thumb with a hammer – not hard enough to break anything, but hard enough drop the hammer and yell. Yeah, it sucks, and it hurts. But after a bit of screaming and some savory words, the moment is usually over quickly, save for a bit of soreness. Now, imagine you are being made to hit your thumb with a hammer intentionally, with the same amount of force. You’ll still go through the same pain, yelling and soreness, but first you’ll spend time worrying, fighting with yourself, hemming and hawing about how bad it’s going to hurt. Chances are pretty good too that you won’t even use enough force the first couple of times, and actually have to hit your thumb multiple times to finally get to the same level of force. So, you’ve wasted time obsessing about pain that hasn’t happened, amped up your stress level, and had to actually hurt yourself multiple times just to go through at least as much pain anyway, if not more.
This is what most of us do most of the time. We avoid the physical pain of working out to the level of real physical change by telling ourselves that taking the stairs instead of the elevator will do the trick. We avoid leaving a toxic relationship because the fear of being alone takes up too much of our psychological space. We avoid pushing through the hard emotional moments to get to the root of why we are in that toxic relationship in the first place because the truth is terrifying.
But have you heard the good news? (yep, that’s a Jehovah’s Witness joke. Not sorry.)
We are in good company. The extreme majority of us are in this state together. However, we have the opportunity dozens of times a day to make a different choice. You can choose pain.
I have some relatively minor chronic physical pain that was largely relieved temporarily by an anxiety/PTSD treatment I recently received. The pain has crept back in along with the anxiety over the last few weeks. I’m hunched over when I get out of bed, my joints feel like they’re made of gravel, muscles feel dry and like they could snap at any moment. It’s been hard to work out, so I force some rage to come to the surface because that gets rid of my pain enough to get through the work out. Slow, intentional and methodical are far more painful in this state than adrenaline inducing rage workouts. It’s either that, or I don’t really work out at all. But my anxiety gets worse without the work outs, and the cycle only gets worse.
This morning I just couldn’t do the high intensity. It wasn’t an option. But it’s been that way for several days, so something had to change. Instead, I knew I just had to be slow, intentional, build mobility and stability even though it was going to hurt. But by the time I was done I was moving better and more freely than I have in a couple of weeks. No matter how much I know that pushing through that pain will free my body up and make me a little more pleasant to be around, it’s still easy to forget sometimes.
Choose pain, it’s good for you.
Real pain. The pain you know is there that you just don’t want to look into. Going through whatever real, hard pain is in front of you is the only way through. It’s the only way to actually rid yourself of the deep, dark pain that takes lives – both figuratively and literally. It’s a choice we have to make over and over again.
Push through, look in the dark places, do the thing that you just don’t want to do. One way or another you’re going to hurt, but you can at least decide to gain relief and grow as a person by choosing which pain you deal with. The more pain you deal with, the more galvanized you become; making you much, much more difficult to fuck with.