Pain: Hope’s Ugly Side

“Pain is gain,” or so they say. It seems an entirely pointless motto, because most pain feels fruitless when experienced. The only reason we go through pain in the first place is if the rewards seem suitable, e.g., exercise, diet, athletic training regimen, hours of study.

But pain is unavoidable. “Life is pain, highness,” Wesley says in The Princess Bride, and although he is understandably bitter in that moment, it’s rather true. And unlike most unavoidable things, we don’t prepare for pain much at all. Of course, in some areas, we do. Exercise is the careful exposure to pain in order to withstand greater pain later. It’s an odd way to phrase it, but I hope that my walking and running and standing at my desk will hopefully result in less heartburn and clogged arteries later in life, or rather, less pain now instead of more pain later.

So why do we not prepare for the inevitable pain to come?

Well, a fair case could be made that we can’t possibly comprehend what pain we’ll endure, so why prepare? This seems a bit shortsighted; after all, we know romance, death, hard work and more will assuredly be in our future.. I contend that we actually can prepare for those events to a large extent. Pain is ameliorated by understanding and empathy; being able to reason the whys and whats and hows of something that hurts is what eases the blow. Inexplicable suffering, like that of victims of natural disasters, is what simply can’t be eased. We are driven to understand and fix, but unfortunately, there are limits to what we can do. However, there are far fewer limits to our conscious reasoning and control over ourselves.

And so by increasing our sensitive empathy, we can prepare for whatever may come (and of course, there are always side benefits to such an empathetic increase). Ride the bus instead of driving, so you get up close and personal with the smelly, overly friendly, or overtly violent and creepy people whose sweat pants unsuccessfully try to cover everything. Walk through the cold shirtless when you toss your trash in the dumpster, as if you were like me and only remember to take the trash out when all of your clothes are in the wash. Look that homeless person in the eye. No matter how stressful the holidays sadly get, or how difficult your family may be, put yourself in their place. That odd friend of yours whose posts you unsubscribed to? Don’t do them the silent discourtesy of blocking them; they have as much a right to air their opinions and be heard as you do, even if you consider their opinions twaddle.

(Please note that these are personal aspirations on my part; it’s not as if I actually succeed in all the above, except for the laundry thing.)

That last point is especially pertinent. Others have spoken of the danger of filter bubbles, but it’s easy to forget how seductive they are. We want to avoid the pain of being wrong and/or the cognitive effort of defending or adopting ideas. It may not seem like a type of pain, but it is, for it is uncomfortable. Yet being uncomfortable is what we were born into, even though we spend our whole lives striving for comfort.

Life and the natural world is a finely tuned order of chaos. That phrase seems clunky and deliberately contradictory, yet it does capture our messy, disorganized, painful, immensely complex and intoxicating reality. We come into the world through great pain, and most of us leave in it, and the in between is rarely blissful. Another way of looking at the issue is that without the burden of pain, the highs of happiness would not stand out quite so sharply. And we haven’t even discussed the ennobling effect of forcing oneself to be strong enough to grimly march forward despite what may befall.

So far, the value of facing such pain is necessarily highly qualitative and personal. Some face much greater struggles with pain than others; others are more naturally gifted in such areas. Perhaps it’s better to avoid pain unless absolutely necessary. The only things we have in common is the certitude of facing pain and human existence. Nobody except ourselves know exactly what we’ll gain from facing or preparing for our pain. However, it seems logical that exertion of our store of willpower increases the likelihood of withstanding pain, no matter how great it is.

A relevant example from a recent popular listing is helpful; mentally strong people do not needlessly expose themselves to pain, but rather accept its positive aspects. Now, here is where I feel I should sneak in a sizable caveat: I do not mean for this article to come off as a lecture, more as something I myself aspire to. I haven’t experienced much pain in my life, being quite fortunate, but as I am human, I’ve experienced some, and so I speak with what knowledge I have.

The above paragraphs seem excessively dour for the holiday season, but bear with me. Amid all this talk of accepting and learning to prepare for pain, it’s easy to forget the upside. By preparing for pain, we are exercising the fundamental human virtue: hope. Such preparation is the essence of hope. Even if done begrudgingly, or with complaints, every moment we face pain, we only do so because consciously or unconsciously we know there is something better ahead. Everyone does this, albeit most unconsciously. It’s quite staggering to see how the world runs through the billions of individual efforts, enduring the little pains along the way, simply through a persevering hope. Endurance of even the most humdrum of pains to simply go about your job is a perfectly fundamental exercise of hope you may never realize you even practice.

Summer will come again after a long, dark, cold fall and winter and damp spring. Simply because the majority of days may be mediocre to boring, with sharp moments of pain, the minority of happiness and agony will blare like trumpets in your memory. It is difficult to overcome negativity; after all, we are prone to the belief bad is stronger than good. But that means we must prepare for such pain and plan ahead all the more.

And in this case, even in the dim, dark December days in Seattle, that something is the promise of Christmas and an unrealized New Year full of promise and possibility. Of course, it’ll be filled with painful moments as well, but if there are those who keep moving forward despite their own troubles and fears, and even find time to wish you happy holidays or Merry Christmas or a Happy New Year, that’s when we know what pain truly is. It’s the ugly side of hope.

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