The Hidden Gift of Pain
As a society, we have sought and found ever-increasing ways to make ourselves more “comfortable” in one sense or another. We’ve learned how to mass-produce food and other goods for consumption, devised various mechanisms to control the climate in our living spaces, developed pain medications and other drugs - and these examples merely scratch the surface.
In the post-Internet age, novel solutions to our most minor pains and problems hit the market daily. If you don’t feel like schlepping to the store? No problem - you can use Instacart to order your groceries online and have them delivered to your door. Not able to make it to the gym or your usual fitness class today? No worries - just download the Aaptiv mobile app to access hundreds of workouts in seconds. [Side note: I’m not endorsing either of these companies, just using them as examples to help get my point across].
Earlier this year, I read The Boys in the Boat, a book by Daniel James Brown which recounts the story of the 1936 U.S. men’s Olympic rowing team - nine working-class men who struggled through the Great Depression to compete for the Olympic gold. Their story is nothing short of epic, but what resonated with me most was the remarkable grit that those young men possessed.
The lives that they led and the hard labor and taxing circumstances they survived would be wildly foreign to most of us today - to the point of hilarity. I quite honestly doubt that today’s average 20-or-30-something, myself included, would possess the mental fortitude or wherewithal to survive even half of what Joe Rantz (the central character of Brown’s book) did...but if you’re familiar with the story, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject.
In some domains, the human race is now pushing itself further than ever before. For instance, we regularly seem to shatter previously-held records, and we continue to leverage our growing understanding of health and knowledge of medicine to increase the human lifespan and maximize our potential.
But while we have gained more and more control over our lives, I would argue that we have also [d]evolved to become less and less tolerant. Less resilient. Less gritty.
We’ve found ways to maximize convenience and minimize our potential discomfort in nearly every conceivable way. And we’ve concocted ever more creative and extravagant means of distracting ourselves, of avoiding pain.
There are drugs of all kinds (over-the-counter, prescription, and illegal alike) available as a means of escape, not to mention alcohol, entertainment, games, and so forth. Unless you up and go “Walden,” it’s nearly impossible to just sit with your thoughts or your pain these days - even if you wanted to.
Now, obviously, all of these developments aren’t necessarily bad. Taking a step back, generally speaking, the things that have brought us pleasure in life have typically increased our chances of survival (on the most basic level, just consider food or sex as examples).
In many ways, our innate desires for pleasure, comfort, and happiness have driven us to evolve. These desires have motivated us to create new technologies, to make new and amazing discoveries, to grow, and to achieve. And in many ways, things have gotten better and easier for us over time.
But has our hardwired hunger for comfort also served to hold us back? And could it actually be hurting us in some ways?
Humans have a strong distaste for pain. We lack tolerance for it. We don’t like to experience it, and so we seek to treat, manage, minimize, or avoid it at every turn.
In my capacity as a coach, I often feel a strong and compassionate desire within me to find a way to take away my client’s emotional pain. I desperately want to help distract them from it. I want to give them the tools and techniques they need to lessen it.
But the problem is, I can’t (or at least shouldn’t) do that. And there are at least two reasons why.
First, it’s not my pain to take away. It’s their pain, their grief, their suffering - and only they can truly decide when they are ready to let go of it.
I can offer them empathy and support, but I am not their healer. They are ultimately their own healer. I am just there to guide and coach them through that process.
Second, counterintuitively, I would actually be doing my clients a disservice by helping them to avoid or remove their pain.
Avoiding pain is a temporary fix - not an actual solution. Until a given client actually faces their pain or grief, it unfortunately won’t go away. It will continue to come back and haunt them until they choose to confront and properly deal with it.
Additionally, experiencing pain gives us the opportunity to learn and grow. By withstanding our pain, we discover how strong we actually are. We learn that we are capable of surviving and persisting - to levels and extents we never could have imagined. As a coach, I try not to deny my clients any opportunities they might have to learn, grow, or transform from their pain.
Returning to my earlier line of thought, our society has steadily moved in the direction of reducing pain and discomfort in the name of pleasure, convenience, and control. But what if by seeking to eliminate pain in this way, we’re also denying ourselves of its potential benefits?
Akin to the legendary 1936 U.S. men’s Olympic rowing team, what if the pain we allow ourselves to experience could ultimately serve to transform us into the strongest, grittiest versions of ourselves, if we are willing to let it? Are we doing ourselves a massive disservice by denying ourselves the ability to experience pain?
What if we’ve been looking at things all wrong? What if our pain is actually a gift?
I would love to hear your perspective on this notion. Does pain tend to make us “better” (i.e., stronger, grittier, more appreciative, etc.) humans? Does pain teach us something or enable us to grow in ways we couldn’t have but for that experience? Do the cons of pain outweigh its potential pros? And how does the duration of the pain factor into that analysis?
Now, I know that I’m leaving you with more questions than answers...which is a classic coach move, by the way. ;) But we all will experience pain, suffering, and grief over the course of our lives. And I hope you’ll consider these points I’ve raised and questions I’ve posed as worthwhile food for thought the next time you find yourself struggling to sit with your pain.
Whenever that day comes, try to remember that it’s both normal and human to experience pain at times. And hey - you might even be on the path to becoming a stronger, more capable, and more resilient version of yourself. How much pain would that be worth to you?