On avoiding suffering

Starting with the idea that without pain, there is no joy.  I believe this, but I have found it utterly unhelpful in getting out of the mindset.  The mindset being one of minimizing pain, smoothing out the rough patches in life, etc.  I tend to think that this is a core part of the American Psyche.  It’s the idea that we can out work or innovate our way out of suffering of all kinds.  It seems to be viewed as, in essence, the fruit and chief signal of our superiority in the world to not need to deal with the petty and other cares that assault the ROW (Rest of World).

So many aspects of our culture in my eyes are linked to this idea.  From rampant consumerism (if I buy that BMW or those shoes or ??, then I can be happy) to recreational medicine (if I don’t look like I’m getting closer to death, perhaps I can avoid it all together) to an endemic lack of will to tackle big social or economic problems (blame the victim mentality of various stripes).  From that point of view, I could not have imagined that “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” ethos could be so pernicious.

The basic tendency to move away from pain or discomfort and move towards pleasure makes it very difficult for the idea of “without pain there is no pleasure” to land on people.  Or, to personalize, it resonates with me intellectually but is wholly unhelpful to me emotionally or psychically.  I might be willing to accept somewhat reduced positive affect to avoid the negative kind.  I believe lots of people would make that trade-off.  They’ll vote for emotional stability or, perhaps more precisely, lower variance in emotionality over truly experiencing the pains and joys of the world.  The fear of getting stuck or lingering too long or being permanently scared by those negative experiences keeps many people stuck in repression of all kinds.

What I have found to be of immense use is the idea that running or pushing away negativity actually increases that pain over time.  The modern idea of repression obviously particularly resonates here.  The impulse to stop or cover negative experiences allows internal and relational issues to fester and gain strength.  When we lack a basic understanding of the dynamics (internal or relational) that are co-creating our experience of the world, our ability to cope with those experiences is greatly diminished.  This just gets worse over time as those dynamics become more layered and nuanced.

For me the idea of feeling or trying to fully experience the negativity (pain, sorrow, anxiety, anger, fear, etc.) without adding or complicating the experience with my imagination has been very useful.  In essence, trying to find a better way to access those negative experiences for better self-insight, greatly increasing my capacity to cope with the vicissitudes that life will continue to throw at me.  Not only do I continue to increase my understanding and compassion for what’s going on with me, I also increase my confidence that I can deal with whatever happens next.  We have to have some basic confidence that when we go down that dark hole (let’s say grief or another strongly negative emotion) that we have the capacity to climb back to the light; that even in the darkness, there is light.


  1. Yes, I will keep writing. Work has been quite a bit a mess lately. So, I haven’t been able to get to it as much. I will be getting to a more regular rhythm of new articles very soon.

  2. Fantastic ! Are you going to keep writing articles? I like the way you write. BTW how did you make the little widget on top of your blog ? Thanks.

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