Accepting Pain


In our day-to-day lives we are constantly having to make the choice of either accepting pain, or rejecting it.  In the first case we ‘settle up our bills’, in the second case we ‘evade payment’. Evading takes many forms, and it can also go to any sort of extreme, it can go anywhere from pleading for a bit more time to pay off the bill, to moving to a different address. If I am desperate enough, I might change my name – get a new identity – and then move to a different country. I might even get plastic surgery, or undergo a sex-change!


But why should we pay a ‘pain tax,’ for heaven’s sake? What kind of twisted, masochistic philosophy would require us to choose pain over ‘not-pain’? Why can’t we just have a nice time, isn’t that a valid option in life? Why can’t we just try to enjoy ourselves – as best we can? There is great scope for confusion here, so we will have to tread carefully. Firstly, we could say that we aren’t talking about deliberately involving ourselves in painful situations, the ‘pain’ that we are referring to is the pain of facing difficulties head-on when they arise – when it really is necessary to face them. We don’t go looking for hardship, but when it is inevitable, we deal with it, then and there. In other words, then, what we are talking about is the choice between taking responsibility when that responsibility is ours to take, and handing it over, i.e. pretending that it isn’t ours. One option is hard, the other easy.  As we all know, doing the hard thing makes us feel good about ourselves and what we’re doing, whilst taking the easy way out makes us feel bad. Needless to say, knowing this doesn’t really help very much when it comes down to it, but we do know it, all the same. We know (on some level) that we don’t really want to avoid – it’s just that we can’t find the courage not to.


Another question arises here: How do we know when pain is inevitable, and when it may be legitimately avoided? How do I know when it is my responsibility, and when it is not? We can look at some rather simplistic examples. If I am weeding the garden, and I see a nettle growing there, I can avoid touching it and save myself the pain of being stung. If I only have a few pints in the pub, instead of fifteen, I save myself the pain of having a terrible hang-over in the morning. If I avoid getting involved with someone who I know is bad news, then I save myself from getting stuck in an abusive relationship. All of these are clearly instances of what we might call ‘legitimate pain-avoidance’.  It is of course a fact that life is rarely as clear-cut as this, but we have to start off somewhere, so we will now try to find examples of ‘illegitimate pain-avoidance’. This is easy: we could say that once I have touched the nettle, or drunk the fifteen pints, or got involved in an abusive relationship, then the pain is rightfully mine. Once I make my bed, then I must lie in it! It is a fact that not everyone will agree with this conclusion. After all, someone might say, I could go and find some dock-leaves to rub on the nettle and ‘make it better’; I could swallow a handful of Anadin for the hangover, and I can go and see a counsellor for my relationship problems.  Either that or quit the relationship. Who says that I have to have the pain? What’s wrong with actually solving the problem?


This is actually the key question, and it is one that we are going to need to look at carefully. The point here is that simply ‘fixing the problem’ every time is a very superficial answer and that it doesn’t actually ‘solve’ anything at all. Supposing a medicine did become available that could instantly cure all hangovers – even the very worst ones? All that would happen then would be that I would now have a license to drink! My drinking would be facilitated – actually, the pain of the hangover (or the pain of the alcohol poisoning, if it comes to that) is very helpful because it acts as a limit. If I get sick enough I might stop! The same might be said for a lot of painful situations that we experience in life. If I consciously experience the pain that I am going through in an abusive relationship, and understand what is actually going on in it, then it quite possibly might be the case that I won’t go straight into another one! I don’t have to stay in the relationship, but at the same time there could some kind of learning in it so I don’t have to go through it again. We could argue that there is learning in every painful experience after all, if I pay attention to it. And – looking at this the other way – if the learning (whatever it is) doesn’t take place, because I successfully avoid the pain, then it is of course extremely likely that I will keep repeating the situation.


So the pain of nettles teaches us not to jump in a nettle patch, the patch of a vicious hangover teaches us not to drink so much, and the pain of a disastrous relationship teaches us (hopefully!) not to be taken in by people who appear to be one way when you first meet them, but are a completely different way later on. All of these are valuable lessons. But – we might argue – there might be such a thing as pain that has no valuable lesson to learn – pain that just arrives on our doorstep, as a result of a random accident, as a result of chance. A loved one might die or get sick, or we might get sick, or suffer some kind of accident or loss. But even in these cases there is still a lesson to be learned – we learn that if we go through the pain then we come out on the other side with a strength we didn’t have before (whereas if we somehow avoid going through the pain, then not only does this process not happen, but the original pain stays ‘hanging over our heads’ in some way, it carries on haunting us in some shape or form, so that we haven’t even gained the benefit of escaping it in the way we thought we had). In fact pain-avoidance doesn’t just ‘not work’ (even though it might seem to at the time), in the long-run it actually creates extra pain for us to go through. It adds to the burden of suffering, as if we didn’t have enough already! There isn’t the option of not going through the pain, therefore, because if we don’t go through it the one way then we’ll go through it the other!


As M Scott Peck says at the beginning of his book The Road Less Travelled, ‘life is hard’. Life presents us with difficulties that cannot be avoided, problems that cannot be solved – no matter how clever or how skilful we might be. Straightaway this doesn’t sound good to us – we like to have the ‘positive attitude’ that says all difficulties can be resolved, that all problems can be solved. Pain especially we see as something that either can or should be eradicated. We’ll generally put up with difficulty or pain for a while if we think we’re going to get something out of it, or if we think that by putting up with it we can eventually get rid of it, but the idea of accepting pain as an intrinsic part of life is not one that tends to go down well. The philosophical idea, as expressed by Scott Peck in his book, that life is by its very nature is hard does not go down well. The idea that ‘conditioned existence is suffering’ (the First Noble Truth, as expressed by Gautama Buddha) has even less appeal. In fact to most of us it doesn’t have any appeal at all!


The idea that pain is an intrinsic part of life is a difficult one for us to stomach because as we have said the society we live in actively promotes the belief that pain can be effectively eradicated from our lives, or that it at least ought to be possible for us to eradicate pain. And if it is not possible today, then it ought surely to be feasible tomorrow, when we have better drugs, better pain-killers, better anti-depressants, better technology, etc.  It is this ideal of ‘total control’ that we see ourselves evolving towards. This reliance on our own power to manipulate away those aspects of life that we don’t like has resulted in us becoming what Ivan Illich calls ‘the anaesthetic society’. The problem with an attitude that says we can run away from pain if we want to is not hard to see once we think about it – having an ingrained attitude like this takes away our spirit, our courage, our belief in our ability to get through hardship on our own, i.e. without any crutches to help us. It is also an act of psychological denial because if we could manipulate all our pain away then we would be empowered in ignoring all those aspects of life that we find difficult or challenging to deal with. We would be able to live life as if life didn’t contain any intrinsic challenge – as if life were just a matter of ‘always being able to get what we want’.


We can go back to our example of the hangover. Okay – we might say – it’s not a big deal really if I want to pop a few Anadin. I have a headache, I swallow some pills, and the headache is gone. Big deal. Who said I had to suffer that hangover? The adverts selling analgesics say that we don’t. The problem is a bit more subtle than this, though. I can indeed get rid of pain in the short-term, but there is always a way in which that pain comes back later. Consider – suppose that I have this attitude which says that I can always press a button to zapp any suffering that I am having. Obviously, I am not going to squish my suffering just once in a while; one I get into the habit of it, I am going to resort to my anaesthetic zapp-gun every time. After all, pain is (supposedly) meaningless, and therefore I don’t have to go through it, and so why the hell would I bother? This is our attitude. But then, one day, along comes some suffering that I can’t zapp. It always does in the end – accidents, sickness, loss of one sort or another. So when something major comes along, what do I, with my acquired habit of pain-avoidance, actually do? The answer is simple, I crack up, big time. I go to pieces. I have an incredibly awful time of it…


If I had faced up to all the little hardships, each one that I had gone through would have helped me to grow a bit as a person – each episode of ‘pain-acceptance’ would have deepened my belief in my ability to deal with hardship, and, in addition to this, each time would have taught me that it is possible to grow through pain. There is a lesson in this, and it is an empowering one. As a result of being empowered by a life of non-avoidance when something major comes along, then I don’t panic – I simply get on with it, without making too much fuss. This doesn’t mean that I like it, but it does mean that I don’t undermine myself by saying “I can’t do this….” over and over again in my head until I thoroughly believed it. I don’t resist the experience by repeatedly telling myself that I don’t have the capacity to go through it! As Richard Bach says in Illusions:

Argue enough for your limitations, and, sure enough, they will be yours.

Of course, there is still the counsellor, or the psychotherapist. Okay, I say, so I ‘crack’ under the strain of some life-event. I’ll get over it – I’ll go and hand myself over to the experts to sort out. They will fix me up. The experts (as in the story of Humpty Dumpty) will put me back together again. This is another major delusion that society fosters! Any honest psychotherapist will be happy to put you straight on this one – there are no short-cuts to mental health. There are no short-cuts and no one else can do the work for us! Mental health – we might say – is about having an attitude where we don’t want to hand over our responsibility for ourselves all the time; the journey to mental health is about realizing that, at the end of the day, it is me that is going to have to feel the pain, and do the work, not the doctor or councillor or the therapist!


There is also the rather tricky point that we talked about earlier on in this discussion, which is “When is it OK to say NO to the pain?” Are there not times when I should simply walk out of trouble – if it is still possible to do so – as in the example of the relationship that turns bad?  There is no universally correct answer to this question – whilst there are times when this would be the best course of action, there are also times when it wouldn’t be. Clearly, there are times to walk away from trouble and there are also times not to. It can be very hard to know what one should do in individual cases, but the principle that we are talking about applies to general trends and tendencies, not particular instances. What we can say is this: if I have a habit of ‘cutting and running’ when difficulties come up, then I will never discover the inner strength that was hidden in me all along, and if I never discover this, then I will never be of much use either to myself, or anyone else. It sounds very harsh to say this, but there is a psychological law here that none can escape. One formulation of this ‘law’ is to say that I am only able to receive happiness to the extent that I am able to receive pain. As Kahlil Gibran says in The Prophet (1926, p 36):

……Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.

And the selfsame well from which your laughter

rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.

And how else can it be?

The deeper that sorrow carves into your being,

the more joy you can contain.

Is not the cup that holds your wine the very

cup that that was burned in the potter’s oven?

And is not the lute that soothes your spirit the

very wood that was hollowed with knives?

When you are joyous, look deep into your heart

and you shall find that it is only that which has given

you sorrow that is giving you joy.

When you are sorrowful, look again in your

heart and you shall see that in truth you are

weeping for that which has been your delight.


So far we have talked about accepting pain (or we could also say, ‘responsibility’) when it is ours to accept, but this doesn’t really answer the question as to when the responsibility is mine, and when it is not mine. As we have said, many times it may not be immediately clear which it is, and we have to use our own judgement. But there is also the question of when some catastrophe or accident comes along that is in no way the result of anything I did. Maybe my partner runs away with my best friend. Maybe I get involved in a car accident that was not my fault at all, and I get seriously hurt. Maybe I get mugged and robbed at knife-point. Or maybe I suffer a stroke, and become confined to a wheel-chair.  Each one of these constitutes a misfortune which has been ‘unfairly’ (so to speak) visited upon me, and yet the suffering involved is rightfully mine. It happened to me, so I have to accept it. This doesn’t mean I have to ‘give up’ and allow myself to despair, it just means that I have to face the fact that it has happened.


Of course, I don’t have to accept the reality of what has happened, I can try to evade it. I will probably protest against the unfairness of it all, and ask “Why did it have to happen?” That is not accepting, but it is natural. I might get angry. I might get bitter. I might get resentful towards those who didn’t have to put up with a blow like the one I am suffering from. All of these are attempts to pass on the pain, to ‘redirect’ it like a letter that has come to the wrong address. If I shout and say that it is all your fault (for example), then this is a very basic way of passing on suffering. I want you to feel bad, not me! Ultimately this way of redirecting doesn’t work (since blaming others or blaming the world isn’t exactly a good way to find happiness) but it can seem to work in the short term. Another possibility is that I might go into denial – I might start using alcohol or tranquilizers or sedating TV programmes to block out the realization of what is happening. ‘Evading’ pain in this way is also ‘passing it on’ – we could say that in this case I am passing it on to myself in the future, since as we have said avoiding pain only ever means more pain to go though later on.


We have talked about refusing the experience by being really negative about it but curiously, I can do the same thing by being really positive! I might for example pin all my hopes on some means of rectifying the situation, on some plan for making everything right again. I might buy into a ‘positive’ belief structure that offers me comfort. Or I might distract myself with lots of positive purposeful behaviour, and this is yet another way of postponing pain. But as we have already implied, the unconditional act of accepting pain is neither positive nor negative because it is not based upon expectations, or hopes, or ‘believing that everything will somehow turn out alright in the end’. Unconditionally accepting pain means witnessing what is there – it means acknowledging it, but not judging it as good or bad.  We aren’t saying that it is morally wrong for me to attempt to avoid pain that is legitimately mine. That is not the point at all – pain avoidance is perfectly natural and it is inevitable that we will try it. Why wouldn’t we? What we are saying however is that – in the end – my attempts to avoid my legitimate pain will not work. They might seem to work in the short-term, but they won’t work in the long-term. In the long-term they will prove counter-productive, they will involve me in more suffering than ever. If I want to carry on trying to evade reality I can, that is a choice that is open to me; I am perfectly free to believe that I can escape from pain, and I am also free to learn  – eventually – that I can’t.


At this point, we might want to challenge what has been asserted above. It has been asserted that it will prove impossible (in the end) to escape pain. As well as this, we have also asserted that no one can know happiness unless they also know sorrow. Is this really true? How can anyone make such statements – isn’t this being dogmatic? After all, has anyone ever scientifically proved it? It is certainly true that many people would disagree with the suggestion that pain is unavoidable (particular those involved in marketing pain-avoiding strategies) but what we are doing here is simply putting forward the idea for examination.  Actually, there is no need to agree or disagree. To react in either way would be to miss the point! This might seem confusing, but it is straightforward enough really. If I make an assertion and you deny it, there is security in that for you; if I make an assertion and you agree with it, then there is security for you in that too. Either way, no work is required! Either way, the answer is on the table. What we’re essentially saying here therefore is that the inherent demand in the question “Is that really true?” is the demand for the security of us not having to experience the pain of uncertainty, which is the same thing as the pain of having to find out for ourselves.


Wanting to have ‘the truth’ given to us on a plate is itself a basic form pain avoidance – essentially, we want to avoid going through the uncertainty of ‘not knowing,’ and get quickly to a nice safe destination where everything is sorted out. If I want to know what is ‘really true’ then it is important for me not to take any short-cuts such as believing my own automatic reaction, or believing what someone else tells me.  ‘Wanting to know the answer’ very easily becomes yet another attempt to hand over responsibility: I don’t want to have to go through the painful process of going through it myself, I want a guide-book to tell me what to do. I want a tried and trusted method – which is of course understandable enough. This is an understandable desire, but it just doesn’t work!


Because the demand is there, there is – naturally enough – selling guide-books is big business.  Most book-shops have shelves that are full of books on self-development, self-help, positive thinking – all sorts of psychological recipes to help us change our lives for the better. If I go to see a therapist, it is probably because I want someone who ‘really knows’ to tell me what I am doing wrong, and how I can fix it. Yet, how can anyone tell us how to live life? If this was possible, then I would never have to go through the adventure of learning it for myself – my own journey of discovery would not be necessary. “Sure – I’ll just buy the self-development package,” the man says, “I don’t need to go through all that messy business of finding out for myself.” Who knows how long that might take, anyway?


A short-cut like this (if it existed) would be dreadful news, because it would rob us of the experience of making our own way in life. Someone else – an expert, a qualified and certified person who knows all about it – tells us what to do, and then we just have to follow instructions. If I happen to be feeling scared by the responsibility of finding out for myself ‘what it’s all about’ then a short-cut sounds really good, but actually, it represents a threat to our own autonomy. If I stop thinking for myself then I have handed over my freedom to someone else, or to some idea or theory. But there is no ‘theory for life’, just as there is no method to become mentally healthy. Realizing that there are no easy answers has got to rank as one of the most painful discoveries that it’s possible to make, but when we actually get on with it, then the ‘slap-in-the-face’ of finding out that I can’t hand over responsibility turns out to be a crucial turning point in my attitude to life. From this point on avoidance ends, and when avoidance ends then the real adventure can begin…


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