Pain is an unavoidable reality of the human condition.
I can deny it or temporarily anaesthetize myself against it. I can try to go around it, reject it, or struggle to fix my life to avoid it. But, if I desire to live consciously and honestly, I know I am powerless to eliminate pain from my experience.
The only hope of moving beyond pain is to see it, acknowledge it, sit with it, hold it, and trust that there is something more that has the power to carry me through the difficult times.
I need to acknowledge the ways I seek to avoid facing my pain and recognize how futile those strategies are. I can choose to let go of these dishonest and dysfunctional coping mechanisms.
So what are my primary pain avoidance strategies?
They are probably too numerous to list. But my schemes for anaesthetizing myself against pain include:
1. Control – I seek to gain mastery over the people and circumstances of my life. I retreat into the illusion that the problem with life is that circumstances refuse to conform to my specifications. If only I could get the world to unfold according to my wishes, needs, wants, and demands, I would be free of pain. If I redouble my efforts, work hard enough and smart enough, I will solve the problem of pain. I am anaesthetized by the illusion that there is a formula by which I can tidy up the messy reality of life and make things always run smoothly according to my desires.
2. Achievement – There must be some accomplishment, some golden award out there that will finally lay to rest the pain I experience. If only I could achieve an adequate level of success, that would compensate for the difficulties and struggles of my life and I would be free of pain. I cling to the childish illusion that if the world will only tell me how well I have done, the pain of my life will be diminished.
3. Recognition – I need to be seen. So much of my pain emerges from the feeling that I am invisible. If only you would recognize me, acknowledge me, hear me, and affirm me, I would not feel so small. The little adrenalin rush I get when I know that the world “out there” sees that I exist, temporarily diminishes the pain of being anonymous. Being seen is a powerfully addictive anodyne.
4. Distraction – The world offers endless opportunities for me to entertain myself to death. I seek ways to spend my time that have enough juice to keep me distracted. They come in varying degrees of destructiveness. All the distractions in which I seek escape offer temporary relief but they all lead me away from an awareness of my deeper self where the truth and strength to live with pain resides.
5. Story – I fill my head with stories about how I have been wronged, cheated, let down by people, life and God. I run around in the little squirrel cage of my brain spinning endless narratives that seek to avoid the reality of pain by explaining it away, or escaping into the illusion that I can make sense of the chaos of life.
These strategies share in common their absolute futility. They do not deal with the pain. They offer temporary sedation but always at the cost of rendering me increasingly unconscious and numb. To be distracted is to be absent. To be completely absent is ultimately to be dead.
(nb: today’s newsfeed brings a sad story that appears to illustrate the failure of all these strategies to keep pain at bay: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/02/01/suspected-suicide-of-worlds-best-chef-highlights-pressure-cooker-of-haute-cuisine/)