The Need For Pain
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The Need For Pain

Why pain is necessary in living a meaningful life.

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The Need For Pain
The Gospel Coalition

Passion. Romance. Freedom. We all want these things, and they are essential for a meaningful life, yet they come at a price - pain. I feel it's safe to say that no one wants pain. As a matter of fact, humans will do whatever necessary to avoid pain. Pavlovian psychology demonstrates how minds are conditioned with pain. Psychologist B.F. Skinner studied how the behavior of rats could be altered by conditioning them with pain through electric shock. Humans are similarly conditioned, though we are much more complex than rats. Our conditioning roots much deeper than the physical level. It is often an emotional wound we have received early on in life that alters the way we live, and from an early age we are conditioned to live safe in order to avoid pain. This conditioning to be safe is what keeps us from living fully in freedom and passion.

Think of the top three things in your life that have made you who you are. If you are like the other people I have talked to, they are probably painful experiences. Who we are, or at least who we are in front of others, is likely a result of the avoidance of emotional pain. The wounds we receive in our youth are the things that shape us and condition us to make choices that keep us safe. I remember some of the wounds that used to shape me. When I was in junior high, I moved to a new school. There, not many people knew who I was, and no one wanted to hang out with me after we met, so I felt friendless. I was usually the last chosen for sports teams in P.E. and was the guy who the teacher had to partner with during group work. At this same time my girlfriend left me for my best friend, who apparently was more attractive than I was. I know, it all sounds funny now, but then these events caused enough pain to develop a lie inside my soul that I would live with the next seven years, that I was not impressive enough for people to like me.

The pain I felt conditioned me to living safe. I learned how to control people, and manipulate them (especially girls I liked) into thinking I was awesome. I always kept people just out of reach from discovering who I really was, though. I was afraid that as soon as I allowed people to be free from my manipulation, and allowed myself to be free, they would no longer accept me and I would experience that pain all over again. And so I lived safe. I avoided my passion to write in order to play football. I avoided romance in order to have purely sensual relationships that didn't require me to be vulnerable. I avoided the freedom in accepting who I was for version of me I thought others would accept. All of this just to avoid pain. The pain of rejection, of failure, of loneliness - condition us to become a "safe" person.

In our conditioning, our pursuit of happiness becomes a pursuit of comfort. We seek stability in the place of passion, and success in the place of significance. Our reptilian brain keeps us safe in order to stay alive and by doing this keeps us from ever coming alive. We marry a "safe" spouse then get a "safe" job and build our lives around avoiding pain, but we miss the point of life. What is a man who gets all there is to have in life but forfeits his soul? Aldous Huxley, a 20th century writer and philosopher, tells a story of a savage living in a society where man has finally discovered how to live free of pain. In the satirical novel "A Brave New World", the savage, who is new to this society, is horrified by the conditions of the "perfect world" people have chosen to live in. In this society they live perfectly painless lives, but without passion, romance, or freedom. In this scene the savage is brought before the controller, who keeps the people, called Deltas, content in their "happiness". The controller says to the savage,

“Expecting Deltas to know what liberty is! And now expecting them to understand Othello! My good boy!” The Savage was silent for a little. “All the same,” he insisted obstinately, Othello’s good, Othello’s better than those feelies.” “Of course it is,” the Controller agreed. “But that’s the price we have to pay for stability. You’ve got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art. We’ve sacrificed the high art. We have the feelies and the scent organ instead.” “But they don’t mean anything.” “They mean themselves; they mean a lot of agreeable sensations to the audience.” “But they’re . . . they’re told by an idiot.” The Controller laughed. “You’re not being very polite to your friend, Mr. Watson. One of our most distinguished Emotional Engineers . . .” “But he’s right,” said Watson gloomily. “Because it is idiotic. Writing when there’s nothing to say . . .” “Precisely. But that requires the most enormous ingenuity. You’re making flivvers out of the absolute minimum of steel—works of art out of practically nothing but pure sensation.” The Savage shook his head. “It all seems to me quite horrible.”

“Of course it does. Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the overcompensations for misery. And, of course, stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.”

This novel, though fiction, is the perfect satire for our society, so bent on avoiding pain that we avoid passion alongside with it. To avoid living in such a world, we must accept that pain is necessary, and not allow the fear of it to keep us from love and adventure. Every good story has trials. "The Notebook" would never bring us to tears if there was never the pain and obstacles that Noah and Allie had to overcome in order to be together; "Toy Story" would not grip our hearts if Woody never had to face the pain of feeling rejected by the other toys and his owner Andy; and "Gladiator" would never inspire us if Maximus never had to face the pain of losing everything, including his family. Every great story must include one thing: pain. Through avoiding pain we avoid living out a great story.

My solution is this: rethink what makes you passionate, what makes you come alive, and give your life to pursuing it. It's not until we give up our life to something great that we truly come alive. Ironically, in living safe in order to preserve our life, we end up losing it in the end. I have given up controlling and manipulating my relationships, and have started allowing myself to be free, to be who I am, and also allowing others to be free. I have learned to accept myself, and this has helped me accept others as they are. I have begun to seek what makes me passionate, planning a future where I can live significantly instead of safely. I have stopped seeking the pleasurable thrill of leading girls on, and have become a hopeful romantic. Doing all these things makes me vulnerable, and I know I will experience pain in my vulnerability. But, in order to live a meaningful life, you need pain.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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