The Benefits of Pain?

September 10, 2012


Detail from Giovanni Bellini’s The Agony in the Garden.

The moment we left our mothers’ wombs, a doctor or midwife smacked our bottom and made us cry. Welcome to the world. We are born in pain, we die in pain and in between we experience both physical and emotional pain throughout our lives. Why? Is there any benefit to it?

I once read about a rare medical condition where a child had an inability to suffer physical pain (Congenital Insensitivity to Pain with Anhidrosis (CIPA)). The parents had to monitor the toddler 24/7. He constantly had new bruises because he’d either put his hand in the fire and leave it there, or he’d poke his leg with a knife. You see he had no pain reflex. The parents even  bandaged his hands to stop him from biting them off. Clearly, physical pain is nature’s way of alerting us to danger. It compels us to withdraw from harm. Also the memory of past pain keeps us away from similar situations.  But what about emotional pain, the aching grief of losing a loved one, does that have any use?

I know when I lost my mother the grief was unbearable. I was only young, and did not have the skills to cope with it, and neither did anyone else I knew. Lots of people offered platitudes: Time heals. She is still with you as long as you remember her. None of those hit the mark.

The thing about pain (physical or emotional) is that it changes. For example, the morning after my throat operation I had a sharp, stabbing sensation each time I moved my neck. If compelled me to keep it still, which aided its healing. In the days and weeks following, the pain changed daily. Sometimes it was a throbbing pain, sometimes it felt as though there were strings stuck in my throat, then finally there was only a small tickle. Pain can never remain constant. Could this fact perhaps be the key to understanding the function of emotional pain?

Emotional pain, just like physical pain, draws attention to a problem area. Be careful, take special care of this, it says. You need to make changes in this area in your life. In the the example of my throat surgery, there were certain foods that were too irritating and had to be avoided.  Similarly, might the experience of emotional pain be drawing attention to something I need to modify in my behavior? Perhaps the intense pain of grief indicates I loved too selfishly, perhaps I should become less dependent on others? Possibly.

If that is true, then is there anything I can do now to avoid being hurt emotionally in the future? If the pain is situational )for example, getting involved with the wrong sort of partners) then yes, that type of situation can be avoided. Desires can be modified. Through reflection needs can be untangled. We can prevent some pain in the future by better defining what we need in our relationships, by sorting out the clutter of wants and desires. But I don’t believe emotional can ever be totally bypassed. There is ‘no getting used to’ for emotional pain. No’weight training’ whereby you can acclimatize to endure greater and greater quantities  of pain. No philosophy, no amount of faith can build immunity to hurt. Maybe that is a good thing.

Because through pain we seem to grow. I know I have grown the most since my heart attack. It has motivated me to change many important habits. I am healthier now in some ways then before. The possibility of early death has focussed my priorities in a way nothing else ever could. And I am one who has read umpteen self-help books, attended a gazillion self-improvement lectures. Yet it was a near-death and the subsequent mental pain that forced me grow, to use the considerable theoretical know-how I had accumulated. There was an urgency to it. It was literally a case of grow or die.

I know there will be other painful events in my life. That knowledge does not make me a pessimist: it makes me a realist. It still does not mean I am looking forward them, whatever shape they might take. But when they do arrive, I hope to have the wisdom and the skills to use them as fuel for another spurt of growth. Perhaps that it is the whole point of emotional pain.

In my youth I was so desperate for wisdom, for inner peace, for self-acceptance that I used to say I was willing to trade my right arm for them. I now have those things to some measure, and I also still have my right arm. What I did give up was the left half of my heart instead. I have no regrets about the trade.

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5 Responses to “The Benefits of Pain?”

  1. Madonna said

    Hi Pradeep,

    This is a great post with much substance. I work with those in emotional pain and help them to move through it much more quickly. The only thing I could add is that the more enlightened we become the less need we have for pain, both physical and emotional.

    • Thanks Madonna, you are correct. We do have less need of pain for growth as we evolve. But I feel pain is inevitable in life. And the more empathy we feel for everyone, the more we recognize our connectedness, the greater we feel the pain of humanity.

  2. reems86 said

    I connected very much to this article. It really has put things in perspective for me. Thank you.

  3. harmonie said

    Several medical conditions occurred to me this 2012 and I have been going through a lot of physical pain this past year. There is also uncertainty about how I may be impacted in the upcoming year. It’s scary. I have always been mindful about my life and question everything. Now this formerly robust and healthy woman is looking for benefits to physical pain and the lessons that I may receive. Thanks for your post. It got me thinking…

    • My sympathies for your ill health. I have come to accept mine through looking for what they add to my life not what they have taken away. I hope the same for you.

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