The “Why” of Pain: Why Storytelling Matters

Emerson Dameron
Mar 26, 2018 · 5 min read
Photo by Dmitri Popov on Unsplash

You took a big risk. It didn’t work out as you’d hoped.

You know how it feels to fail. It releases similar brain chemicals to those that appear when you’re attacked by swans. Every attempt at damage control, everything you do to try to turn things around, only buries you deeper in toxic neurological sludge.

Your audience is not oblivious. They feel bad for you, because they have hearts, which makes you feel bad for them. They feel bad for themselves for having to sit through this. And the cycle continues.

Like a stand-up comedian after a grim, ill-timed, too-soon joke that kills the room, you enter into the death spiral of bombing. The sweat pours, and you swipe at your audience, resenting them for the comfort and freedom that comes from their relative lack of accountability for what’s happening here. This makes them resent you in turn, and resent themselves for being a part of this sad spectacle.

Our experience of time is relative, and moments of failure can feel as if they contain eternity. Later, you may be able to analyze the wreckage, to pick apart what didn’t work and reassemble the parts into a functioning contraption. But not now. Now, all you can hope to do is power through.

“Our problem today is that we no longer believe in things but in symbols, hence our life has passed over into these symbols and their manipulation.” — David Loy

Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash

We are a species of storytellers. As bees do the waggle dance to let the rest of the hive know where the food is, so we tell stories to help ourselves and each other make sense of the world, with all of its dangers, treasures, and bounty of complexity.

These stories can have immense power, and even greater staying power.

As someone who has suffered from depression through much of his life, I have come to appreciate it through the prism of storytelling. Through the experience of depression, we weave an intricate and profoundly believable tale of woe. It is, in its own way, a glorious achievement.

In its full splendor, depression feels like gospel truth. It feels like reality. It is perhaps better understood as a work of art. It’s an unpleasant work of art, but it’s quite sophisticated. Depression scans experience and translates it into an interpretation of essence. “I feel this” becomes “I am this.” The self takes the shape of that depression and expresses itself through that. It’s not failure. It’s the wrong kind of success. Given a shift in perspective, one can admire the intricacies of the theatrical facade.

“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” — Philip K. Dick

Photo by Raphael Schaller on Unsplash

The swans are real, and they’re deadly. To be useful, your story must include them and acknowledge the hazards they impose. In important matters, self-delusion does you no favors. But you must also distinguish what matters are important from those that seem important.

When you bombed in front of your audience, did you lose social status? For good? Are you sure? Have you asked anyone? Or are you taking your own word that, after one rough presentation, you’re now branded as a loser?

Richard J. Davidson is a scientist. Among other things, he tortures people. For a living.

In a landmark 2004 study, he hooked up Buddhist monks, long-term meditators all, to an EEG, along with some novices. He then subjected them to unpleasant stimuli.

According to the readouts, as the painful stimuli were occurring, the monks felt the pain in more rich detail than the novices did. But the big difference occurred after the stimulus was gone. For the monks, the experience of pain ended with it. For the novices, the pain stayed active well after there was no longer anything inflicting pain, or anything left to be realistically afraid of.

The monks took the pain, felt it fully, and kept moving. By contrast, the novices felt the pain, told themselves a story about the pain, and continued to experience pain as a result of living within that story.

“Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of them.” — Epictetus

“Person holds bow and arrow and aims at target” by Niklas Tidbury on Unsplash

In a famous Buddhist parable, our protagonist is walking through a forest when she is struck by an arrow. It hurts. Passersby are amazed at the unusually large amounts of blood.

Should our hero a) insist on knowing the story of the arrow, including the history of its manufacture and the childhood trauma that led the archer to attack a neutral stranger in this way, or b) focus on removing the arrow, mitigating the damage, and getting the hell out of that part of the woods?

As our hero makes up her mind, the archer fires a second arrow. This arrow represents emotional reaction. It represents a destructive, self-imposed narrative. The trick is to accept the pain of the first shot while learning to avoid the second.

Avoiding that second arrow is the quest of a lifetime. No one can do that homework for you.

“The map is not the territory.” — Alfred Korzybski

“A pack of napkins with the map of Munich printed on them in a souvenir store” by Camilla Bundgaard on Unsplash

Our power to tell stories is our greatest gift and curse. To some extent, we can choose which stories will guide us through our struggles and triumphs.

When you’ve passed through the experience of failure, what souvenirs are useful to retain? What price will you pay to preserve them?

If you’re telling yourself a story of humiliation and embarrassment, consider that it may no longer serve you. To begin constructing a more useful story, practice deconstructing the tales you have taken for granted.

Draw a new map, and you may be surprised to find new paths through challenges you may have thought impassable.

I’m Emerson Dameron. There’s more where this came from. Follow me, or reach out.

surTHRIVAL Skillz — By Barry Davret

Next Level Skills For The Modern World

Emerson Dameron

Written by

Levity Saves Lives, Los Angeles

surTHRIVAL Skillz — By Barry Davret

Next Level Skills For The Modern World

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