‘There was a terrible lightness to my body. It didn’t feel like my body. I felt as if my spirit had taken up residence inside a body that was not my own…A life without pain. That was the very thing I had dreamed of for years but now that I had it, I couldn’t find a place for myself within it.’
— Haruki Murakami, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle
I once knew a guy who, due to an extremely rare nerve condition, was completely unable to feel physical pain. On one occasion, I watched him pull a glowing orange piece of metal out of a huge, roaring bonfire, laughing as it seared into his palms.
Later the same night, someone threw a deodorant can in the fire. If you weren’t an irresponsible teenager, you might not know that heating up a pressurised container leads to an explosion. A surprisingly big one.
The cluster of people sat nearby saw and we all ran from the clearing, awaiting the inevitable eruption from a safe difference. When nothing happened, he casually walked over, picked up a stick and began to push the can further into the hottest part of the fire. I heard someone whisper he’s going to lose his fucking hand. It was the moment where reckless teenagers suddenly realise there might be consequences for their actions.
No one breathed for what felt like minutes.
The can exploded. A literal mushroom cloud of flames several meters high shot into the air, setting fire to a few nearby trees and raining ash down on the whole area. When the black smoke cleared we saw he’d somehow jumped back in time and was grinning, unruffled.
As you might imagine, he was fearless. He was also terrifying.
We tend to place indifference to pain — physical and psychological — on a pedestal.
But when I find myself wishing I could just switch it off, once in a while I find myself remembering the way he unflinchingly put his hands into the flames, and how it showed me that pain exists for a reason.
That’s easy to see in the case of physical pain — it shows us when something is wrong and makes us more careful — but less clear for psychological pain.
It’s all too easy to grow up unconsciously believing negative emotions are wrong, a failure, abhorrent. As a small child, I learned that the easiest way to get what I wanted from adults was to promise that having X or doing Y would make me ‘happy forever.’
What monster would deny a 4-year-old eternal bliss, all for the price of a cupcake? The problem comes when we internalise the idea that negative emotions are inherently something we shouldn’t experience. As if we should be able to put our hands in the fire and feel nothing.
Gill Hasson writes in Emotional Intelligence:
‘Judging emotions as positive or negative, good or bad isn’t very helpful….all emotions have a positive purpose — to keep you safe…The idea that we should aim to only have good emotions, such as happiness and compassion, although well intentioned is not helpful because it suggests that we should try to eliminate anger and jealousy and other painful emotions.’
Let’s repeat that: all emotions have a positive purpose — to keep you safe.
We’re sold the idea that it’s possible to just make it stop and be free from painful emotions. As if we can buy something or achieve something and reach that state.
Which is obviously impossible because a) hedonic adaptation is a thing b) even the good in life brings its own set of problems and c) no one can escape the worst parts of life, like illness and bereavement.
Pain becomes a form of failure in the face of an impossible promise.
It becomes an insult to the good people and things in our lives. As Oliver James writes in How To Develop Emotional Health:
‘Beware of authors bearing gifts of happiness. It is psychological snake oil.’
Think of the way many of us respond to a friend who is unhappy. If you’re anything like me, the immediate urge is to do something. To grab your super-hero cape. To desperately try anything to cheer them up.
The impulse is pure, but it also sends the message that we see their feelings as a problem to solve, that they make us uncomfortable, that we’re not willing to simply be there and let them self-regulate.
Sometimes we just want someone to be there. We just need to feel until we know how to act. So we don’t put our hands in the fire.
One of the people who helped me the most during one of the worst patches of depression I’ve experienced was, funnily enough, a geography teacher.
I would show up at his office and pour out my heart. Like really, spill it all out with reckless abandon.
I don’t know how it started in the first place. I think I went in to ask something and then started crying because I’d been holding back tears all day.
Anyway, I would sob and whine and rant and ruminate over everything I was feeling — which was unusual because depression tends to make me numb, not emotional.
And because he wasn’t actually allowed to comment on mental health matters and wasn’t trained in it, he’d simply respond with random facts about oxbow lakes and glacier formation and continental drift.
Sometimes I’d say: please tell me what to do.
He’d reply: you know I can’t. No one can.
He never acknowledged what I was saying directly. He never gave me one word of advice. And yet it helped me more than the three or four therapy session a week I was dragged into.
It helped because all I really needed was someone to give me the space to talk about what I was going through, without them trying to reshape my experience for their own comfort. I just wanted to say it, not for someone to try to fix it. The only way out was through.
Gill Hasson again:
‘Own your own emotions. Don’t blame them on other people. Recognise when you try to blame other people and situations for how and what you feel. Taking full responsibility for your emotions will help you better manage them. Why? If you can take responsibility for owning your emotions then, like anything else that belongs to you, they are yours to manage — to influence and direct.’
Numbing it is what makes us continue putting our hands in the fire. William Burroughs described how addiction kills pain, and therefore life, in Junky:
‘Junk turns the user into a plant. Plants do not feel pain since pain has no function in a stationary organism. Junk is a pain killer. A plant has no libido in the human or animal sense. Junk replaces the sex drive. Seeding is the sex of the plant and the function of opium is to delay seeding.
Perhaps the intense discomfort of withdrawal is the transition from plant back to animal, from a painless, sexless, timeless state back to sex and pain and time, from death back to life.’
Once, when I was grappling with losing a friend for the first time, I told someone I didn’t know how to react. They said: the nice part is that there are no rules for grieving. As in: you don’t need to act one way or another. You just feel whatever you need to feel and accept it all as valid.
It’s true for negative emotions in general. There are no rules. There’s only feeling, then letting that be a guide.