Why We Need Pain and How to Use It to Your Advantage

“Life can bring much pain. There are many ways to deal with this pain. Choose wisely.”

J. Cole, ATM.

 

Kids grow up with all types of fears that generally don’t follow them into adulthood: monsters under the bed, thunderstorms, or vegetables. I was scared of shots. Even days before going to the doctor to get my immunizations, I was absolutely terrified.

I know that my fear was mostly based on the anticipation and not the actual pain of a shot (which, if I put it in perspective, wasn’t nearly as bad as some of my scrapes and bruises) but, a young me still thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if we couldn’t feel any pain?” It seemed so lucky to me – not having to deal with the physical pain of scary needles, falling off my bike, or getting a rock stuck in my knee at the beach (yes, that actually happened).

Turns out, there are actually people who can’t feel pain. Congenital insensitivity to pain, AKA congenital analgesia, is an extremely rare genetic disorder that prevents someone from feeling physical pain – but it’s nothing to envy. “This condition… can lead to an accumulation of wounds, bruises, broken bones, and other health issues that may go undetected over time and can lead to a reduction in life expectancy.”

Aside from injuries, there are other risks that us pain-sensitive humans never have to worry about. Our bodies are supposed to feel discomfort when it’s too hot outside, so we produce sweat to cool ourselves off. Those with CIPA can’t perceive that they’re overheating so they don’t sweat; they have to monitor what they can’t feel. That means constant body checks for abrasions or abnormalities and regular trips to the doctor just to prevent a minor issue from becoming fatal.

My younger self had a well-intentioned but unrealistic view on pain. Anyone with even a bit of empathy hopes for a world free of pain and suffering, but in some cases, maybe immunity to pain is actually a greater curse than the pain itself. Our ancestors survived by adapting the ability to feel pain; if something physically causes pain, it forces you to stop what you’re doing and address the problem, (hopefully) saving you from sickness or death. However unfortunate, physical pain is, for the most part, a necessary alarm system for our bodies.

If bodily pain helps us survive by warning us about a physical problem, then emotional pain also evolved to help us survive. Loneliness drove us to seek out companionship (humans were more likely to survive in groups) and love (or at least lust) facilitated reproduction. Anger and fear allowed us to be wary of and respond to hostility. In this way, negative emotions and mental pain also became a necessary evil.

In modern times, the pain we feel from negative influences in our lives can help us by driving change. If a friendship or romantic relationship constantly brings us misery, we can act on this and improve the situation or cut out these associations. The dull pain of boredom forces us to explore outside our comfort zones. Maybe a reasonable amount of shame for eating two pounds of wings in one sitting encourages us to go to the gym.

But what about pain that isn’t necessary for us to survive? What about the pain that comes from depression with no obvious cause? What about the pain that comes from losing a loved one? Grief and sadness was an evolutionary benefit for reasons such as group cohesion and familial attachment, but to a certain extent, pain warns of a problem that we can’t actually remedy. So what do we do with our pain?

To understand the consequences of our pain, let’s start with the psychologist, Felix Brown, who found that prisoners are far more likely to have lost a parent while they are children than the general population. It seems intuitive that such a loss would lead to deviant behavior. Curiously, though, on the other end of the spectrum, Lucille Iremonger found that about two-thirds of British prime ministers from the beginning of the 19th century to the start of World War II lost a parent before the age of 16. In David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell examines these opposing outcomes and brings awareness to a curious phenomenon – “eminent orphans”.  Gladwell himself also found that twelve of our presidents had lost a parent in their youth, an unusual number when considering that one in twenty children ages fifteen or younger loses one or both of their parents (5%). Gladwell concludes that people who have traumatic experiences may be more likely to fall into either of the extremes of the social spectrum – criminality/deviance on one end and eminence on the other.

I’m sure that you’ve seen this phenomenon in your own life as well; some people handle pain by spiraling into self-destruction while others not only overcome, but excel in extraordinary ways. Sometimes, we see a little bit of both.

We see the “tortured artist” (think Pablo Picasso, David Foster Wallace, or Emily Dickinson) who wows the world with his or her creative genius, but struggles with internal despair. This is particularly salient today with the suicides of Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain, and Robin Williams. Countless revered musicians like Jim Morrison, Amy Winehouse, Ian Curtis, and most recently, Mac Miller, have died young from drug abuse and suicide. I’m sure you can think of instances of the rich, famous, and talented who are “gone too soon”. Given the statistics and observations, I’m no longer surprised to see another actor or artist head to rehab, get arrested, or fight through a scathing divorce.

I’m in no way seeking to glorify mental illness or personal suffering as a means to talent or notoriety. A life in disarray is not something we should strive for. I’m also not trying to chastise those who are unable to overcome their inner pain.

I mean to make a point, much like Malcolm Gladwell does, that people who experience mental pain can wallow and self-destruct, or they have the opportunity, however difficult, to turn their pain into something beautiful. I’ve dealt with my own pain in various unproductive ways, but my writing is my way of turning my pain into something useful – something I can be proud of. I’ve learned that emotions are like energy. It never disappears, rather, it transforms into something else. I want to convert my pain to a current that powers my abilities, and hopefully, the abilities of those around me.

Pain will be a constant of the human experience, for better or worse. The true testament to our species is how we make use of our pain.

Choose wisely.

 

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