We spend an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to avoid pain and to bolster our illusions of immortality.
Consider how much we worry and fret and resent what we experience.
We worry we won’t have enough money when the next bill comes due.
We resent the onset of a cold or flu.
We stiffen our muscles and close up when we’re stressed, as if to block out what we don’t want.
We attempt to manipulate the behavior of others so that it conforms to how we think they should act, hoping that if they act the way we want, they will not be able to cause us pain.
Ironically, avoiding pain just creates more of the same, and neither an abundance of money nor complete control over the people in your lives will change it.
I’ve been rereading Lois Lowry’s novel The Giver this week. It contains a very relevant example.
The main character, Jonas, lives in a world of sameness and order, where it’s rude to ask someone about their differences, and where an infraction of a rule can mean expulsion from the community and death (a concept that they’ve made to sound very benign by calling it “releasing”).
They’ve created, effectively, a world in which they only have to swallow a pill to avoid feeling pain.
It’s only when Jonas is selected to become the Receiver of Memories — the one who is responsible for keeping the memories everything about life that the rest have chosen to forget — that he realizes what his world’s decision to get rid of pain has really cost.
They’ve given up color (they literally can’t see it), diversity, books, family, sex. Even love they have no concept of!
And he realizes they’ve given up choice.
Here’s a passage from the book to illustrate:
“‘But now that I can see colors, at least sometimes,’ [says Jonas,] ‘I was just thinking, what if we could hold up things that were bright red, or bright yellow, and he could choose? Instead of the sameness.’
‘He might make wrong choices’ [replied The Giver].
‘Oh.’ Jonas was silent for a minute. ‘Oh, I see what you mean. … We don’t dare let people make choices of their own.’
‘Not safe?’ The Giver suggested.
‘Definitely not safe.’”
That is partly true: when you make a “wrong” choice (if you assume for a moment that there even is such a thing), you can cause pain for yourself and others. But because you are human, because you’ve incarnated in a body, you will, at some point, go through pain and sadness and anger and loss and all sorts of things that are considered “negative.”
That’s okay. That’s the whole point, to experience yourself through choices and through the creation of your world moment to moment!
There’s a considerable difference, worth pointing out, between pain and suffering. Pain is what happens when you’re walking down the sidewalk and you get hit in the head by a falling hammer.
Suffering is when you replay that incident over and over in your mind, getting angry first with the person who dropped the hammer on you, and then with the person who owns the company that put the worker with the hammer on the roof above you.
And then the city planners for allowing the sidewalk to be so narrow in that particular stretch.
. . . and then the bastard who manufactured the hammer!
Suffering is doing all that and then trying to sue the worker for all he’s worth and spending years in court just for the sake of your vengeful anger.
Hammers will fall on your head. Get over it. Pain is a part of having free choice. You will not be able to avoid it, at least at this stage of existence, unless you want to live in Jonas‘ world, where life has literally lost all its color.
Whether you suffer, however, depends on you and what you choose. You may find that the greatest source of pain and suffering is, in fact, your resistance to them.
Matthew Stensland-Bos explores consciousness, love, wellness, and healing in Know This Love, a weekly SFBay opinion column, as well as on his blog, Conscious and Nutritious.