July 17, 2011 — 17 Comments

There is much to be learned from pain. Especially physical pain. I would never say it warrants being sought out or needlessly extended but there is always a lesson in it. It makes for a good metaphor. And metaphors are the key to understanding the world, as well as ourselves.

I fractured my elbow recently in a fall from a bike. I got up to try to shake it off. Stay with it, I told myself as I made my way to the gym to clean up. Do you want you need to do in spite of it. The value of physical pain is that it is finite. It ends when the ailment ends. We can use this as an opportunity to push on through, with the safety net of knowing it will eventually be over. It is practice.

For every physical pain or ailment, there are a hundred emotional and metaphysical pains. Not just pains but conditions: anxiety, discomfort, fear, uncertainty, and failure. We may be scared to acknowledge these or have no faith that we can bear them. Our injuries, our broken bones, aches, flus, migraines, and diseases—the distresses that come, are dealt with in time and then go (thought they occasionally leave a lasting trail), they are proof that we have what it takes to reach inside and deal with the others.

When you run and you get a blister. It hurts like hell for a minute—gets hot and pulsates, like an ember caught between the sock and the foot. If you’ve ever pushed through it, what happens is disgusting but wonderful at the same time. The skin bursts and the puss floods out, the body’s way of putting out the fire. The body, we forget, has all sorts of mechanisms designed to numb and treat pain. And so suddenly, it doesn’t hurt anymore.

Pain is a lesson in fortitude and also in self-awareness. In knowing our limits and our vulnerabilities. In a way it is a reminder that we are alive. Small or big, it prickles our senses and wakes them up—brings us back into the present, pulls us from our thoughts and to the physical. In many cases, it is a message that we are not in control.

What surprised me with my arm was that there was little sharp pain—sharp pain is easy to know what to do with. Take a pill. Clean a wound. See a doctor. But dull pain, dull pain is harder. We’re not as sure where to place it. Do we ignore and hope it will go away? Its what I did. All I felt was heaviness. Right up through the x-ray a few days later, I was sure it was nothing. Then it rose up and hit me in the room: I’m going to faint. I’m going to pass out right here from the pain in the middle of it all and promptly did.

We are not in control of pain. No matter how hard we try. Not of the cause or the duration—only the response. Through it we are given an opportunity to act our principles: justice, kindness, selflessness, moderation, self-direction. It offers the reminder that though pain is inevitable, suffering is not.

It’s funny because many of the toughest people shrink from facing these issues. Or are easily knocked around by it. They forget to stay with it, to push through, to do what they need to do in spite of it. Yet they face and endure the most trying physical calamities on a constant basis. This is to refuse to learn the lessons of pain. A failure to see what a calming, reassuring metaphor it is.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

17 responses to Pain

  1. First of all, I hope your elbow is better…

    I liked the point that we are not in control of pain. That may be the most “painful” thing about it… at least for me. I think the fact that it is a test with no knowable end is what is most instructive about pain. Its unknowable nature and its omnipresent qualities in the human experience are what make it at once the most aggravating and the most helpful.

    What do you think is the true opposite of pain? Pleasure? Or is it hope? Or are pain, pleasure and hope essentials of the crucible of life and are we and our reactions to all of the above, the (hopefully) refined product?

  2. Ha! Fair enough.. On a different note, I’m about to head to Barnes & Noble to buy something good (don’t know what yet) on or by Seneca. What should I start with?

  3. I recenly fell off a bike as well! I received a combination of (1) sharp and (2) dull pain. The pain of (1) was clean cause and effect, a logical outcome of my fall, and a great break from deskwork. The subtlety and persistence of (2) was a harder lesson in hidden impact and ignorance about my own musculoskeletal composition, because neither my doctors nor I know the cause of my right elbow joint effusion. This unnamed, dull undercurrent kind of pain is a source of ‘heaviness’ for me because it is a reminder that I lack control both physically and epistemologically, and, further, that I persist in ignorance (get my MRI results tomorrow).
    Another source of pain is living with the fact that I hit the left brake on a downhill.

  4. Ouch! I hope you have a speedy recovery!

  5. I’ve been lucky enough to have people around me who have helped me recognize the value of pain, and the role it can play in understanding how to stay present and surrender the illusion of control. One thing that I have struggled to understand, though, are those who experience chronic long-term pain.

    What are your thoughts on things like Fibromyalgia and other experiences of chronic long-term pain, where there is no guarantee of the pain being finite?

    • As Marcus Aurelius said, you can still take comfort in such pain. You know it will end when your end comes.

  6. Athletes in training are told to accede to localized pain, but push through general discomfort. So your metaphor is consistent because you are highlighting the opportunity presented by dull, general pain. General pain is the backdrop for uncritical tenacity; localized pain requires evaluation.

    A person attempting to live a just life can easily fall into the trap of a tautologous belief system/worldview. For example, one could read Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” and become a hard-line libertarian. To pursue a bigger self is to reject nihilism, but simultaneously to reject the oversimplified objectivisms. The nuance of evaluating localized pain in worldview is thus necessary for a dynamically ethical life.

    • “To pursue a bigger self is to reject nihilism, but simultaneously to reject the oversimplified objectivisms. The nuance of evaluating localized pain in worldview is thus necessary for a dynamically ethical life.”

      Would you mind expanding on this a bit? Or possibly rephrasing it?

      • Rephrasing would make it more convoluted, so I will gladly expand. There is a human need for closure which motivates us to seek perfection in our ideals. When a belief system has one noticeably false (uncomfortable) component, that is one too many. If you’ve studied ethics or any similar branch of philosophy at its most mechanical, logical, axiomatic level you’ve noticed that it is virtually impossible to arrive at a coherent certainty of any pure substance. We can prove if-then statements but we can’t establish the ifs. This is part of the postmodern condition; postmodern theory is useful for identifying the weaknesses and inconsistency in schools of thought but unhelpful in forming positive certainties.

        As stoics we embrace life’s imperfection as a grounding station without surrendering to a passive lifestyle. So to expand on your quote, my point is that our worldviews should adapt as they are challenged intellectually and practically over time. These challenges inflict on us localized pain. That is, little things go wrong that pose a challenge to the legitimacy of the bigger picture, ideal or plan. Localized pain requires one to think carefully about the appropriate response: whether modification of activity is necessary, and if so what extent of modification. The danger of this is when we think about modifying a small part of something we run the risk of the whole thing falling apart; ergo the insecurity and the urge to avoid looking at localized pain. At the same time, the ongoing aches and stings and background environment conjure a larger chronic anxiety which antagonizes our clarity of thought. So the good life is found by paying attention to localized pain, but it is hard to do so because we are tempted to adopt a uniform stance towards pain, so that we don’t have to think about it, because pain is a reminder of our imperfect reality. Since stoicism is rooted in imperfection and discomfort, it is an excellent approach to productivity in the face of challenges, which of course any real productivity constitutes. “Consider any individual at any period of his life, and you will always find him preoccupied with fresh plans to increase his comfort.” -Tocqueville

        • Thanks for laying this out a bit more. When I read what I quoted before I felt like something clicked and I liked it, but I wasn’t sure what it was exactly that was resonating with me.

          So, nihilism is akin to throwing up our hands and relinquishing our power to hypothesize and believe in causal connections – it’s doubting every “if”, and precluding us from ever making any “then”s. Nihilism is breaking everything down, and never replacing it with anything. This prevents us from living “the good life”, until we accept the uncertainty of every “if”, and commit to making a “then” in spite of this uncertainty. Am I understanding you?

          I do agree with your identification of nihilism as an obstacle to living a fulfilling life, but I’m wary of encouraging people to strive to make a “bigger self”. There is probably some inconsistency in saying that, but I’m just not entirely sure how to reconcile those two values – to be willing to actively participate in making an effort to change that which can be changed, and also to reduce the self-obsession and self/other type thinking that can come along with attempting to be in control.

          Thanks for the food for thought.

  7. “Nihilism is breaking everything down, and never replacing it with anything. This prevents us from living ‘the good life’, until we accept the uncertainty of every “if”, and commit to making a “then” in spite of this uncertainty. Am I understanding you?”

    I was vague. Nihilism, as I redefined it, means breaking everything down, and believing that a dynamic, tasteful, fulfilling life cannot be lived in the absence of a replacement. Since the knowledge of good and evil is irreversible, there is no likelihood of replacement. So the nihilist is the person who assumes, after learning that life has no personified meaning, that there is no point in laboring towards fulfillment. Whereas a person who learns that life has no meaning and continues to seek a fulfilling life is not a nihilist, under my definition. So nihilism is the reification of the assumption that life must have meaning to be well-lived.

    Of course my definition is far off from proper definitions. I happen to be a moral nihilist via naturalism. So I too am concerned with the problem of othering.

  8. The first few chapters of “Metaphors We Live By” by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson are excellent

    “Helpful to have some background in structuralism before reading. Written in the 70’s. Essentially: the metaphor form pervades every facet of our conceptual structure, influencing every aspect of our lives on a daily basis. The authors assert the reasonably simple and inarguable premise that the things we say influence how we think and what we do. Many of our most important concepts are entirely metaphorical in nature (i.e., LOVE). We define these concepts entirely by relating them to other (often physical) experiences (i.e., JOURNEY; PAIN). These relationships can shape our lives in powerful, unnoticed ways by influencing our daily actions and thoughts.”

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