Is the Dance Worth the Pain?

Reflections on Navigating Life

Image credit: The Dance of Life by Edvard Munch (1899)

People almost universally struggle with suffering and pain. Lucky for us, this can take many different forms; physical pain, emotional pain, or, my personal favorite, existential pain. It can be very tempting as we navigate the complicated world to avoid this at all costs, even if that cost is the beautiful aspect of life.

How often have you heard someone say they don't want to make any friends because they'll just get disappointed? Or that they don't want to fall in love again because they're just going to get hurt? Or, at its most extreme, that they don't want to have children because you are signing them up for a lifetime of suffering (not to mention the suffering they will inevitably cause you)?

Now I ask: how many times have YOU thought of any of these things?

We're all susceptible to bitterness and resentment. Life is that way, and it can be a daily battle to keep that slate wiped clean. I suppose that it fundamentally gets down to the question of: is life worth living? Or, to use today's title: is the dance worth the pain?

The Good and the Bad

There will be "good" and "bad" no matter what you do in life. I use these terms loosely because, as the Stoics would say:

“Nothing will ever befall me that I will receive with gloom or a bad disposition.”

— Seneca

A Stoic values virtue above all else, and they argue that externals cannot stop you from being virtuous. Nevertheless, the Stoics did have preferred indifferents. Health isn't necessary to live virtuously, but it was undoubtedly preferred, and ignorance towards your health was far from idolized.

With these terms now very loosely defined, let's go through a simple example.

When you choose to exercise, you are likely doing so to improve your health. If done consistently, this will lead to a higher quality of life, less pain, etc. Exercise can give you a "high" in the short term, fuelled mainly through endorphins. However, those invaluable benefits do not come free at the same time. To maximize those benefits, one must be willing to do what essentially amounts to physical labor. And it doesn't end there. Exercising often leaves you stiff and sore in the following days.

In no way am I suggesting that having sore quads is an excuse not to live virtuously. Still, it's without question that most people would rather avoid such physical discomfort (at least until you become a gym rat who takes pride in barely being able to walk the day after squats). In other words, we could say that to get the "good," one must be willing to accept the "bad."

The Dance

As far as I can tell, the way forward is with the unwavering mentality that the good in life is worth the pain. I understand how tangly this can get: if one gets hooked on cocaine and has the time of his life but then needs to deal with all of the consequences that follow, well, maybe we shouldn't assume that this is the best path.

The mentality, then, has to be adopted with a particular philosophy that directs you towards those very things that are worth it. But who gets to decide what's worth it?

That's the thing: it's tricky. We can, however, make some reasonable assumptions. Physical exercise seems to be worth it. Setting goals you are passionate about seems to be worth it. Building lasting relationships appears to be worth it. Having kids, too, seems to be worth it.

Of course, all of these are conditional and contextual — not everyone will value all of these, and not every relationship will be worth it, for example. But broadly speaking, most people appreciate their work, health, kids, and close relationships. Figuring out the details is up to you, and that's a rather beautiful sentiment if you think about it.

There's this old Garth Brooks song called "The Dance." The song refers to a romantic relationship in which heartbreak in some form follows. There's a line that sums up the theme of the song rather well:

“I could have missed the pain but I’d have had to miss the dance”

Yes, you can opt-out of heartbreak, and failure, and delayed offset muscle soreness, but that won't eliminate all of life's suffering for you. Instead, all it will do is eliminate any of the potential good in life — love, success, and fitness, to name a few.

Epictetus said,

"How long are you going to wait before you demand the best for yourself?"

However, the bitter pill to swallow here is that demanding the best for yourself isn't exactly straightforward. It comes at a steep cost, but the mentality to have (Stoically in this case) is that living virtuously is worth it. Although it is faith-based, which way of life isn't?

The Adventure

I'll use one of the best works of fiction of all time as an example — The Hobbit.

In The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins left his cozy, comfortable, and safe home to go on an adventure. He faces a dragon, on top of walking for months (without his handkerchief), almost dying frequently, and significantly downgrading his meal quality and quantity (a big deal for a hobbit). But that's not all. The adventure breaks his heart. He loses several friends and is forced to stare the world's great evil directly in the eye.

Image credit: "The dance" from The Hobbit

Indeed, Bilbo could have stayed home. He could have continued with his luxurious life and never experienced evil, or war, or dragons, or the loss of friends. But if he hadn't gone on that journey, he would never have experienced the good in the world, nor peace, nor kind "monsters," nor genuine friendship.

The adventure literally breaks his heart.

Closing Remarks

The Buddhists had it fundamentally correct: life is suffering. Though, I do not think that it is just suffering. There are so many beautiful aspects of life and so many opportunities to dance. I'd be lying if I told you that those opportunities come for free. Nothing comes for free, especially justice, wisdom, courage, and temperance. But I have faith that the dance is worth the pain with virtue as your star.

The content of this post is based on Episode #139 — The Dance from the Strong Stoic Podcast found at the links below:

Spotify | Apple Podcasts | YouTube | Website

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