Pain is Fuel
“To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities — I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not — that one endures.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche
A lot of people are afraid to admit that life is just as much about suffering as it is about feeling happy or even neutral. The more they deny their inevitable suffering, the more they suffer. Similarly, those who ignore their suffering, repress it or pretend not to feel it lose an opportunity to learn from it. Pain is fuel to those who have their eyes open. Oddly, the more we plunge into pain and feel it fully, the more we cultivate the strength needed to transcend it.
This is the paradox— people hate pain and avoid it out of fear, thus preventing themselves from learning how to properly deal with it. They often create more problems and more pain simply because they weren’t willing to deal with an initial unpleasant feeling. Think of how many addictions or violent actions have resulted from people who can’t handle their pain from within. In cultivating inner-strength, we save ourselves a lot of trouble. Pleasure rarely teaches us; it’s not much work. That’s why we gravitate towards it. But we should respect discomfort and see it for the opportunity that it is.
This doesn’t mean we should run around making each other hurt. There’s enough pain in the world. The way of nature is inhuman and often painful. To be self-aware is to suffer. If you’re alive and interacting with the world for X amount of years there’s a certain amount of bad stuff that’s inevitably going to happen to you, the same way there are rainstorms, hurricanes and tornadoes.
There aren’t any places on Earth where these disasters occur in perpetuity forever. They occur periodically. Nature doesn’t judge them; they’re simply part of the grand machinery. The way of nature is to randomly apply chaos as a method of pointless change. Things are just always moving around and reconstituting themselves with no point other than to just keep going.
This is the idea of entropy. Everything is changing; you are always changing. Whether you feel good or bad, you can’t cling to the moment because as soon as you do, it’s gone. Recognize yourself as a simple collection of natural particles subject to the same laws of entropy and decay as any other particles. You are subject to metaphorical erosion, difficulty, destruction, etc. From this erosion comes your growth.
This is the same phenomenon that causes people to be terrified of death despite its inevitability. In Zen, we meditate and make peace with all thoughts on every side of every spectrum. We let them come and go without grabbing onto any of them. Death becomes just another event in life, a series of events. Suffering is the same.
Once we recognize all experience as part of the same fabric, we stop trying to selectively curate our lives to be ‘just right’. The more obsessively we try to engineer life to conform to our wishes, the more devastated we become when unforeseen problems arise. We can step back and relax a bit, recognizing that things are going to happen whether we will them or not. Similarly, we can learn not to take great experiences for granted, to understand that all we have could disappear at any moment. We might as well make peace with whatever comes along and work with it rather than resisting it or getting too caught up in selectivity.