Pain Is Not Inherently Problematic
As a health educator, and a wellness coach, I spend a lot of time sharing strategies one can employ to reduce unnecessary suffering.
Do you feel tense, tight, and overly charged up? Try moving your body to loosen the hold those unnecessarily dark thoughts seem to be having on you.
Are you having trouble sleeping at night? Try reducing your caffeine and alcohol intake and consider integrating a mindfulness-based activity into your daily routine.
And so on and so forth…
But I wonder if, especially in times like these, it might not be useful to discuss the merits of discomfort and even raw pain…
Pain helps us identify when something needs our attention. It is the communication platform laboring women’s bodies use to help them give birth to a child. Pain is the alarm bell our bodies rely on to signal when there is a problem in need of care. Without pain, the body does not know to heal. This is the problem with leprosy…it attacks nerve endings and removes our pain when we are injured. That’s part of why the body falls apart. Our bodies don’t know to heal the wound when there is no pain signal.
Jordan Peterson, a psychologist and largely celebrated (though also controversial) public speaker, once talked about a client he was working with. His client was distressed. He was complaining about depression. His wife had recently left him. His job had come to a close shortly thereafter. He was financially insecure and uncertain what to do. Could Dr. Peterson help him get out of his depression?
Peterson paused for emphasis and then explained to his crowd that the man lamenting about his woes was not clinically depressed. To paraphrase a bit, Peterson explained that this man’s life simply SUCKED. The response to the situation (sadness, anger, exhaustion, fear) was a perfectly appropriate human response to an overwhelmingly bad set of circumstances. What this guy needed to do was not get out of his funk. He needed tools to help him get his footing back. Pain was not his problem. Pain was his ally motivating him to seek help.
Pain and discomfort can also be doorways into vulnerability and empathy…experiences that thought leaders which include Brene Brown, Lex Friedman, Joe Rogan, Jim Collins, and even former President Barack Obama (just to name a few) have insisted are essential for effective leadership and broad collaboration.
In short – pain is what unites us. It is our common denominator. It is the thing we can all relate to and the thing that, if we are courageous enough to share our experience of it in meaningful and authentic ways, can help us to heal.
Discernment is Key…
This is not to say that we should all celebrate pain for its own sake, nor that we should use pain as a tool to force other people to “get back in line.” Not all pain is positive or helpful. The trick is to have enough clarity of mind to be able to identify when the pain we are feeling is useful (I cut my finger – which hurts like hell – which prompts me to tend to it immediately) and when it is problematic (I am suffering from fibromyalgia and the pain I am feeling is not linked with any identifiable wound I can tend to). Am I inflicting unnecessary and unhelpful pain upon myself by staying in a relationship that is toxic? Or am I working through a challenging and necessary conflict in the context of a healthy relationship? Is that burning sensation in my muscles simply the consequence of a good workout? Or is it the sharp pain of a joint that is aggravated and needs rest?
Well…as I write this on January 18th, 2021…I am feeling extremely uncomfortable. It’s not the sharp and simple pain of a sliced finger. It’s the dull ache that comes with feeling anxious or fearful that something bad or unpleasant has happened…and that it is entirely possible that something worse will happen in the near future: the dis-ease of apprehension.
And while I find it extremely unpleasant, I believe it to be entirely appropriate. THIS pain is not undermining me or making me unnecessarily miserable. It is not the pain of a devious monkey mind trying to find something to stew over. This pain is trying to tell me something. I am confident I am not the only person feeling it, and I am equally confident that our collective experience of this pain is trying to tell us ALL something.
My Pain Story…
When Trump was voted into office, I was displeased. I was legitimately afraid. I imagine that is how all Americans feel …really how all humans feel when their preferred candidate does not win. When people preemptively demonized him as the political equivalent of the anti-christ, however, I was not willing to get onboard. We had not even given the guy a chance, yet. Perhaps he would prove all my greatest fears wrong. Perhaps, contrary to so many American’s collective opinion, he would end up becoming just another president that I disagreed with on policy measures, but ultimately could understand on some level. Who knows?
And for the most part? That is sort of what happened. Sure…I was outraged by a number of things, as I think happens to all people when an issue they feel strongly about is not held with the same sense of reverence we believe our leaders should hold it. I was sickened by the separation of children from many families who were merely trying to escape violence. I was disgusted by the casual use of dehumanizing language that our president (yes…OUR President) felt at ease with. I could list a whole myriad of other things, here, but that would honestly distract from the point. I’m sure for every grievance I would file against Trump’s administration, there is someone who could levy an equally lengthy set of complaints against Obama (a president I appreciated and continue to admire). Such is life.
It was not until after the 2020 election that distaste and anger fermented into something much darker: palpable horror.
I watched as Trump threw what looked to me to be a monumental tantrum. I watched him insist that he did not, in fact, lose. The election was fraudulent. That made me, understandably, nervous. He had been priming the pump on this for months. There is no doubt in my mind that if he had won the college electorate, he would have felt no need to call into question the legitimacy of mail-in ballots. I noticed, for example, that he seemed to raise no concerns for those states with a high percentage of mail in votes who voted in his favor. But that was not what caused me concern. What frightened me was how we responded.
I watched as some congressmen jumped onboard with a “stop the steal” mantra to match the tempo of his beat. Wait…I’m sorry…what? We have people in the legislative branch of government who are onboard? Seriously?
Then I watched as a number of law suits were filed in courts across the country contesting the vote. How would judges (several of whom were appointed by Trump going to handle these cases?) I was heartened as one judge after another did little more than raise a scornful eyebrow before throwing them (the lawsuits as well as the so-called lawyers drafting them) out of the courtroom.
But still. Just how far was he going to take this? More importantly…how far would we let this go?
As the days crept closer to Biden’s confirmation, I noted the apparent uptick in frustration across the country. Most people believed Biden’s election to have been legitimate. Wait…let me say that again. Most people believed the election to have been legitimate. What kind of majority are we talking about? Roughly 60%, if news anchors are to be believed.
That. Is. Terrifying. It means that nearly half of those in our country believe our democracy is already compromised. Nearly half of our country believes we are, in fact, no longer a true republic at all.
To keep some semblance of sanity, I made every effort to unplug from the process when I could. Having no power to single-handedly alter the course of events, I spent my time focusing on my relationships. My work. My self-care practices. I was never able to close out the political brain-tab, completely, but at least current events weren’t set to my default mental homepage.
It did not feel appropriate to ruminate. Yet.
Then came January 6th, 2021. A political march was scheduled – one meant for Trump supporters to come out in support of their President. Of OUR President of the United States of America.
Tens of thousands of people turned out to support him. I did not begrudge them their desire to do so. Anyone who is willing to take time out of their lives and peacefully protest is, in my mind, a patriot. I may not share their reality. They believe it to be obvious that Trump won. I believe it to be obvious that Biden won. I believe climate change to be real, some people believe it to be a hoax. I think cilantro is delicious. Others think it tastes like soap. Everyone in a capitalist democracy gets to vote and live their lives in accordance with their preferences so long as doing so does not directly impact the ability of others around them to do the same. It is that simple.
The rest is, as they say, history. I need not go over the details of the riot. In short…a fraction (a fairly small fraction we should all remember…even if that small fraction was still a large enough number to overwhelm the D.C. police) took Trump’s call to “fight like hell” literally, scaled the capital building, and found their way inside.
Oddly enough THAT is NOT what is still leaving me feeling apprehensive. It probably should (I mean…shouldn’t the capital be one of the safest spaces in the country?) But no. Regardless of one’s political affiliation, when people get in masses, it doesn’t take much for things to go sour. We are tribal creatures. When standing alongside our perceived fellow tribesmen, our adrenaline charged up, we can do great and terrible things. That has never NOT been true. If it were merely a question of a riot, I would mourn for lives lost, whisper a silent prayer for grace, and move on.
No…what has me feeling apprehensive is what I have been seeing in the aftermath.
Using Shame and Dehumanization to Numb Our Pain…
When there is uncertainty, rage, exhaustion, and fear, it is absurdly tempting to look for a singular source and rally a battle cry against it. We want this pain to be as simple as a sliced finger. We want there to be a clear adversary or group of adversaries. Then we want to dehumanize them, belittle them, shame them and destroy them. Because the alternative interpretation…the possibility that we are all, in part, to blame for our circumstances and yet are all, in part, simply victims of forces much bigger than ourselves? That would require us to think really hard about the complex layers that all amass together to create the mess we are in right now. It would require a lot of personal reflection and inner work. It would require us to empathize with people we disagree with on many issues that matter dearly to us. All hard things to do when our systems are on high-alert and we are completely emotionally, intellectually and physically exhausted.
Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD, does most of her research on the brain and focuses on how our brain creates and experiences emotions. She explains that our brains are, essentially, budgeting machines. It attempts to make predictions about what will happen next, and then allocates energy accordingly. Two of the most “expensive” things our bodies do include learning and moving. Empathy and reflection are a part of learning. Shocking, then, that we are running so low on empathy and discernment right now. We are just too. Damn. Tired.
Perhaps that is the real tragedy in all this. At a time when we are all, collectively, in pain (and would, therefore, be primed to be able to empathize with each other) we are struggling to do so.
If you do not believe me (that nearly all of us are in a lot of pain) then you might consider trying an experiment. Turn on Fox News – a channel known for being sympathetic to conservative voices. Then turn the volume off. Take the content out of the equation and just look at the faces of the news anchors in front of you. I did. And when I did, I saw anger, hurt, and fear. Now turn the channel to MSNBC. Try doing the same thing. Just look at their faces. Anger, hurt and fear. Same thing.
In The Hidden Brain, (from January 4th, 2021) Shankar Vedantam and Emily Pronin explain how and why this comes to be. They explain why we ALL (no exceptions) hold other people to a different standard than we hold ourselves. Part of it is because we have more access to our own thoughts and feelings. We know what led us to our own behavior. We don’t have t hat kind of access to other people’s motivations. We can only judge them by their behavior. That makes it easier for us to judge them differently. More than that, though, the OTHER problem is that we are often blind to our own motivations. Pronin calls it the introspection illusion. We think we know ourselves well and we think we are aware of all our biases. We are, however, often unaware of our what lies beneath our motives. As a result we are all walking around mystified by other people’s obvious blind spots but are painfully unaware of our own.
You can see how all this would pan out in our present-day affairs. The right insists that it is the left’s fault. The left is certain the blame lies with the right. Both sides are using shame and dehumanization. I have heard my liberals friends call Trump supporters racist and traitors. I have heard my conservative friends call liberals hypocrites and…well…also traitors. I get why they are doing it. It’s a temporary release valve. For a few seconds, we can congregate with like-minded people and lament about our so-called enemies. Like morphine, it numbs us, temporarily, from the pain that comes with uncertainty and disconnection. And if we stumble across a representative member from a group we have deemed “the enemy” then we REALLY get excited. Perhaps (we think), if we shame those people….those…people…enough, they will see the error of their ways and convert. Perhaps if we hurt them enough, it will make us feel less pain and shame ourselves.
Unfortunately, the research does not support that. Shame is not a unifying tool. Shame and dehumanization is the precursor to militant dictatorships and war.
We Need Radical Re-Humanization and Accountability
This is the part where I send out what may be an impossible ask. This is the part where I try and make the case for radical re-humanization.
To be clear, that does not mean I do not want to hold people accountable for their actions. When a member of Antifa thinks it is acceptable to throw a cement milkshake on a just-right-of-center journalist and then proceed to assault him…I want that member and all of those who join in, to be held accountable. You do not get to assault my democracy and not be held accountable. And assaulting a journalist you disagree with IS assaulting my…OUR…democracy. And yes…when you organize a rally and you, the President of the United States of America, insist that the election was stolen (with absolutely no proof of its truth) and then tell tens of thousands of people to “fight like hell” and march to the capital? I expect you to be held accountable. You do not get to assault my democracy…OUR democracy without accountability. And insisting that an election you lost was fraudulent without anything that can resemble reliable proof in-hand? That, my dear, is assaulting my democracy.
But holding people accountable is not the same thing as dehumanizing people. We don’t get to lump ALL Trump supporters in together and slap a “traitor” label on them. Not all Trump supporters want violence. In the same way, we do not get to lump ALL progressives with Antifa rioters. Not ALL progressives want to demolish free-market capitalism. I, for one, am very happy to type up a blog post on this laptop – one only made available to me by way of global collaboration and free trade. I am also happy to listen to podcasts on my smartphone only made affordable to me by way of globalization.
No – when I say accountability, I mean that we all need to start having difficult conversations. We need to determine, collectively, what is okay and what is NOT okay. Once we determine what is not okay, we need to find a way to communicate that boundary to those who would attempt to cross it.
When I say “accountability” I mean that we need to be willing to find people who disagree with us but who are nevertheless willing to speak with us and get help identifying our blind spots. Then, together, we need to determine what we think real leadership looks like.
Accountability looks like impeachment. Accountability looks like voting people in who share our values and who are willing to take responsibility for their actions (rather than insisting the fault always lies elsewhere). Accountability looks like holding up a mirror rather than a magnifying glass and asking how “I” have contributed to the problem and asking how “I” can be a part of the solution.
We cannot hold people accountable without FIRST re-humanizing them. When you shame someone, you remove the possibility of accountability. When you shame someone, you are suggesting not that they did something wrong, but that they are fundamentally bad people. If the person in front of you is evil to the core, how can you possibly hold him accountable? Clearly he must just be at the mercy of his temperament. If the group in front of you is truly evil, how could you expect that group to behave differently? Clearly, they were at the mercy of and merely puppets of evil. They cannot be redeemed. That means the only option is to destroy. That gets us eerily close to a justification for genocide.
I’m not interested in killing off half of my country, thank you very much. I’m not interested in being a target of someone else’s misplaced anger, either.
What I want…what I insist we all NEED right now, is radical re-humanization.
Anything less when the stakes are this high just feels like tapping out and getting out of the ring. And I don’t want to tap out on humanity. I’m just too attached.
So try taking a moment.
What is it that we all have in common?
We are all in pain.
We are all feeling apprehensive about what comes next.
We need to stop allowing ourselves to fall prey to the snake oil of certainty …as in “I am certain Trump supporters are awful” or “I am certain liberals are awful” and start asking better questions like “how did we get here?” and “what are my highest and greatest values?” which should be followed up with “how can we co-create an environment that best represents our values?” which may lead to “who do we think, given our values, is equipped to lead us effectively?”
Our mission is to re-member our currently broken sense of self. We do that by engaging in things that make us come alive. We do that by being kind to ourselves and giving ourselves some grace. We do that by challenging ourselves and by thinking critically about our own assumptions before assuming everyone around us is wrong.
Then, our mission is to take our fully charged, fully alive selves out into the world and share it with others who need a reminder that human beings are, yes, imperfect. But they are worth loving even when we may not agree on everything.
My world has room for Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter activists; Trump supporters and Biden supporters; pro-life and pro-choice advocates…. so long as you’re doing the hard work of self-examination.
So yes. I’m extremely apprehensive about what may happen next. But I think that apprehension is appropriate. It’s making me look much harder at my own behavior and at the behavior of those around me. It’s sending me the signal that something needs healing.
We can answer the call and step up, or we can tune it out and let it all fester and fall apart.
It’s our call.