Older man sitting with his head in his hands.

On Pain


I may or may not have broken my toe last night; either way it was excruciating. And yet, in the thick of the expletive-filled, agony-soaked, writhing minutes after kicking the side of the fireplace barefoot, a thought occurred to me. Not only is pain a fascinating sensation, it serves an important purpose in life.

Pain sucks. It is not fun. I don’t mean pain in a BDSM “it hurts in a good way” sense, but in a helpless yet profound “please make it stop, I can’t take it any more” way.

Pain tells us, in no uncertain terms, that something is not right. It gets our attention immediately, and forces us to focus on the injury – whether physical, emotional or psychological. Pain is something not easily ignored, and in that way it quiets all unrelated thoughts and sets a specific aspect of our life in stark relief to everything else.

If we choose not to address the pain, most likely it will remain, if not get worse. It’s a bit of a divining rod in that way. When we pursue activities that cause or contribute to the pain, it’s abundantly clear. And when we implement strategies that reduce or eliminate the pain, that is also abundantly clear.

In that way, we see that pain can inspire change. Not always huge sweeping changes, but change nonetheless. If you land funny when you’re running and twist your ankle under unusual circumstances, you won’t necessarily have a deep and meaningful spiritual experience. But I do think you’ll be more careful on that stretch of road in the future, or try to be more mentally present when you exercise – both of which are change.

Pain isn’t necessarily physical either. When I drank, life got harder and harder. Hangovers were unpleasant, certainly, but the shame and guilt of things I’d said and done on a big night out were frequently worse so. The more I tried to fix my situation, yet continue drinking, the more I failed. This added frustration and confusion to the mix, which is discomfort in a different way.

When I found myself on the side of the road, being arrested again, the pain surged past the point where I was capable of ignoring it anymore and I realised I had to live differently. I wasn’t physically hurt, but the internal agony, shame, fear, self-loathing, and self-doubt were arguably just as bad. This provided me with the acute motivation I needed to start doing things differently.

Where it not for this sensation, I don’t think I ever would have had the inertia to carry through and do whatever it took to stop feeling what I was feeling. In that sense, the pain was useful – not fun, but useful.

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