I’m struggling at the moment. More specifically, I’m struggling with myself. You see, I’ve had certain ideas about myself since I was a little girl. I created ideas to make sense of my experiences and of these ideas revolved around how lovable I was. On the one hand I had life affirming experiences in which beliefs of being worthy, important and cherished crystallized into gems that studded my childlike consciousness. I’ve also had confusing, disorienting memories by which the ideas of being less than, undeserving, and unloved began to form in twisted, knotted roots that threatened to strangle the very existence of the crystal garden in which I played.
The idea that unpleasant experiences make a deeper impact than pleasant ones is not a new discovery. Fortunately and unfortunately, human beings are hard-wired to over-learn from unpleasant experiences and under-learn from pleasant ones and I am inclined to agree (mostly). From an evolutionary standpoint you would be more likely to survive if you assumed the worst about the rustling in the bushes and braced yourself for a sabertooth tiger. At worst, your limbic cortex has already been prepared for fight or flight and at best it’s a squirrel, in which case no harm done. You may likely not pass down your gene pool by always assuming the best about what’s lingering in the bushes. In other words, fear of pain is hard-wired into us and locking in painful memories make it less likely to make the same “mistakes,” at least according to our lizard brains.
When it comes to more evolved humans, however, it becomes trickier. When our purpose in life is not simply survival but to experience vibrancy and to strive towards self-actualization, the relationship between pain and pleasure shifts. We are no longer concerned our brains will fail to protect us from touching the hot stove. Our concerns revolve around ways we create and stay in our pain-narratives, i.e. the feedback loop of believing something and giving more weight to experiences that confirm that belief. We created stories to make sense of our pain at an age when we felt helpless and yet we continue clinging to them even as we become more empowered adults. Camus says:
“Those who prefer their principles over their happiness, they refuse to be happy outside the conditions they seem to have attached to their happiness. If they are happy by surprise, they find themselves disabled, unhappy to be deprived of their unhappiness.
We are now asking the questions, “Why do we continue holding onto our painful beliefs and repeating our destructive cycles long after we have already concluded they are self-destructive? What keeps us in these patterns, beliefs and realities even when they no longer serve us?”
Even Freud scratched his head at this seemingly contradictory phenomenon that we attach ourselves to pain in the interest of avoiding it. Furthermore, this seems to violate every element of his pleasure principle, which claims humans fear pain and seek pleasure. If our hard-wiring protects us from pain, why do we experience so damn much of it still? And more importantly, why do many of us seek pain and fear pleasure?
Schopenhauer attempts to explain our propensity for suffering by saying our desire for happiness is the real perpetrator. He believed happiness occurs only when we satisfy a desire, at which point the happiness ceases because it has already been fulfilled. Happiness, therefore, “can never be more than deliverance from a pain.”
A friend once told me he had created his pain-narrative at a young age to make sense of his tumultuous family dynamic. Over the last decade, pain had been a dependable companion and he could always expect its arrival, making these periodic visits a ritualistic constant in his life. Joy, on the other hand, did not come as consistently and so he couldn’t be loyal to it. I could relate since I too was fiercely loyal to my own pain but I refused to believe our truths were determined by our paleomammalian brains operating automatically for the sole purpose of survival. What would happen if I consciously attended to the full spectrum of my experiences rather than allowing my lizard brain to drive all my memories? Could I being to re-write my narrative and change my destiny?
In a Huffington Post entry, I share my belief that pain is a necessary part of our whole human experience. Our capacity for pain mirrors our capacity for love. One does not exist without the other. I had friends and family write to me saying they enjoyed the post because it validated their experience of pain. I also had others send more somber messages asking what they should do if sadness and pain was all they could feel? For them, the problem wasn’t that they weren’t permitted to take a dip in the pool of pain but rather, they were drowning in the deepest corners of the ocean of despair. Happiness was not only elusive, it belonged to another reality entirely.
Perhaps this reflects how conflicted humanity has been and continues to be when it comes to understanding why we remain loyal to our pain while claiming in the same breath we hunger for happiness; why do I enjoy playing in my crystal garden while watering the roots that threaten to destroy it?
I’m realizing I should have began this piece with the disclaimer that I wouldn’t be short changing my audience with a reductionistic (albeit less lengthy) “listicle” like “8 steps to achieving happiness” mostly because I am not interested in condoning quick fixes for emotional relief. The purpose of this piece is less about finding a life hack and more to do with acknowledging our moments of disconnection and suffering because in our collective consciousness, our pain is one and the same. Healing can come not only by witnessing someone else’s pain but also through the act of joining them there.
So let me join you and share my own struggles with this frustrating dialectic. I recognize the value and limitation of being loyal to my pain on a daily basis. I am aware of the ways it has captured my attention and created my realities. My automatic thought to someone not waving back to me is, “What did I do wrong?” and the belief, “I’m not important enough” surfaces when loved ones fail to return a text. It has protected me from rejection and by the same token has also caused tremendous suffering.
At the end of the day and regardless of which combination of theories I subscribe to, I am aware that fear - to quote the Sufi poet Hafiz - is truly the “cheapest room” in my house and pain is where I run to when I don’t know where else to go. I am nowhere near consistent in my conscious choosing and have to frequently remind myself of William James’ words, “My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind.” It takes tremendous effort to work through messages from my well-meaning lizard brain, to honor the hard-wired survival mechanism driven by fear, and to become aware when I am reacting automatically and confirming old narratives. I honor my pain and recognize the walls that were erected because of it. I know that just because the walls are there does not mean I have to live within its confines.
I am grateful to know I have such powerful built in mechanisms to protect me. It is also truly an undertaking and a triumph to know I can steer off the path of my neurobiological make-up to pave new grooves that will guide me in the constant revision of my narrative.
Viktor Frankl describes the space between stimulus and response as our power to choose our response and “in our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Through making conscious choices and re-inventing our realities, we are better able to extract meaning from all our experiences, whether it’s meaning in pain or love, old patterns or new ones. Perhaps if we can remind ourselves to be awake with awareness, choose with intention, attend consciously, and derive meaning from places we thought was impossible, that can be enough for the time being.