emotional regulation

The Problem of Pain

Here’s the thing that sucks about pain: It’s inevitable.

I don’t mean in an academic sense, where philosophically we understand “bad things happen to good people” or that “it rains on the just and the unjust” or even the slightly less high brow “shit happens” sort of way. No, pain is inevitable in the sense that it is simply another feedback loop in life. It’s as involuntary as a foul odor or a loud sound or a hot and sunny day. 

Several years ago my family was gifted with a beautiful labradoodle named Amani. She was six years old and had been raised in a sort of idyllic life in the country where she was free to roam and play. The kids whose lives she had been a part of grew up. They left the house. And she needed a new home. We happened to know the owners and volunteered to become her forever family. It was love at first sight. My daughter slept with her, using her large golden body as a pillow. The boys tussled and rough housed with her. She went swimming with us--hell, she went EVERYWHERE with us. Those first six weeks we had Amani we were inseparable. Then it happened.  

We lived on a busy street in the downtown area. One of my kids was pushing at the door. Amani bolted out. She ran straight across the road--and that's when we heard it: WHUMP.  I looked out and saw her body stretched out in the middle of the pavement. Immediately I ran over to her as the car sped away in a hit-and-run. There was no breath. The life had been taken immediately, mercifully.

I carried this beautiful 80 pound dog in my arms back towards the house. My kids were watching in stunned horror and my wife was whisper/shouting "God no, God no..." Cradling her I knew it was over. One by one the family came out, sobbing, and began to pet our new and now past, friend. We must have kneeled there with her for over an hour as the warmth was sifted from her corpse. 

To this day my youngest son recalls that moment and says: "That was the most painful day of my life."

Of course it fucking was. We didn't choose that. We didn't plan that, cause that, orchestrate that, or prepare for it. It hit us. Hard. The inevitability of pain came down on us suddenly and without provocation. Like wandering into a room where the air is toxic and unbreathable suddenly and without cause, we had stumbled into that experience. Now some might say that there were causes--such as this was a country dog in the city--she didn't know what to look out for. Or, my son jostling the door open. Or the driver of the car going too fast, or texting on their phone. And actually--YES--those things are true. Whether they were preventable or not they form a net sum that amounted to Amani's death being unavoidable. 


Pain, when it occurs, is like that. It's an automatic response to a situation, often unpredictable. It's a tear in the fabric of our heart. Physiologically, it's the feeling of a sinking stomach, or the wave of dizziness that washes over you. We feel it as a sudden headache or a tension in our shoulders. Very quickly, within milliseconds, we connect that physical response to a thought and make an interpretation. In the case of Amani's death the "pain" was sadness. And that sadness was telling us something--its purpose in the great feedback loop was communicating that someone we valued was gone, suddenly. Not unlike the physical pain of placing your hand in a fire is telling you that cells are dying and that there is danger--so too emotional pain communicates a variety of realities. Pain simply IS. Nothing to be done about it, except to pay attention to it--because its saying something.

The problem of pain emerges with our responses--optional ones. 

Because there is a difference between pain and suffering. We often use the words interchangeably as a culture--but they have vast differences.  While pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.

Suffering is what often happens when we attempt to minimize, avoid, distract, subvert, or unskillfully respond to pain.

Imagine this--I stumble down the stairs late one night to grab a glass of water and stub my toe on an iron door stopper. It causes an immense amount of pain. I didn't deserve that pain. I didn't really cause it, or ask for it--I wouldn't have chosen it if I somehow could have. But here I am. Now what are my options? What are some natural reactions? I think most of us could relate to wanting to curse, to yell, or maybe even to hit the wall. Still further up the chain of responses, I could throw the damned door stop, or wake my kids up and demand to know who put the door stop there in the middle of the floor. I could rack my brain thinking of causes or reasons why. I could even blame myself--call myself an "idiot" or say "how could I have done something so stupid?"  Or I might choose to avoid the pain in my big toe, to neglect it, and not to notice the wound that I now have.  Each of those reactions has a direct effect though don't they?  They each ADD to the painful experience. They create SUFFERING, unnecessarily.


 While we don't choose pain, we often choose suffering--even if only unconsciously. We routinely create suffering when we attempt to unskillfully fix "the problem of pain."  I've been there. It's as though all we're thinking is: "I don't want to feel this! Get it way from me! Take it!!" We'll try anything to avoid that feeling.

But if pain is an inevitable experience of life, and if it  is actually an automatic feedback loop communicating something to us, then we'd better learn how to get used to it, to tolerate it. In fact, we should get used to noticing our pain, listening to it, and hearing what it's trying to say.

This doesn't mean we won't move into problem solving mode--we probably will. But instead of doing that mindlessly, we now bring a level of consciousness to it all. Imagine trying to "fix" the problem of sadness about our dog... Instead of sitting there and having a beautiful moment with my children celebrating the life and death of our friend I instantly ran out and purchased a new puppy. Or, if I was so concerned about their grief that I started telling jokes, or even yelled at them and told them to go inside and mind their own business! Can you imagine? Of course you can  because you’ve been there. We all have. And it creates unnessary suffering. 

One of the challenges of manhood is learning how to bear pain skillfully. We grow by learning how to tolerate the distress of an automatic response, a frustration, a grief, a sadness, fear or an embarrassment. We pay attention to what the sensation is on our body, and to where our thoughts go. We put our ear to the ground and observe the signal that the painful event or emotion is trying to tell us. We allow it to pass over us and through us and eventually to move past us. Rather than avoiding or suppressing emotions it becomes about experiencing them exquisitely and at the same time mastering them.  

The problem of pain is that while we didn’t create it or invite it—we in no way chose for those events or circumstances to occur—we are now the only ones who can use it and avoid suffering needlessly. Look, there are a ton of situations you can’t make better—but you can usually make them worse. Not listening to your pain will do just that.