The Scale of Our Pain

I usually have one of two feelings when I fly into a large city or walk through a large crowd of people. I either feel insignificant and tiny, recognizing that whatever I do will eventually fade into oblivion among a sea of billions of people. Or, I feel proud to be part of an incredible collection of brilliant and capable human beings, each experiencing the world from a unique point of view, each with our own desires and feelings, and all connected by our shared humanity. Regardless of which sensation comes to mind, both help me recognize that what is going on inside my head, the reality of the world that I have constructed for myself, is not the full scope of human experience and is nothing more than just a world inside of me. Whatever fears, doubts, plans, successes, and assumptions I have are not any more real than the same thoughts going through the millions of people that might be living in the big city that I am flying into.

 

Recently, an entry in Fernando Pessoa’s book, The Book of Disquiet, has given me the same type of feeling. In a section of Margaret Jull Costa’s translation, Pessoa writes about pain, and about how our pain can feel so infinite and overwhelming to us, yet at the same time be so small and insignificant within the scope of the universe. In 1933 he wrote, “To consider our greatest anguish an incident of no importance, not just in terms of the life of the universe, but in terms of our own souls, is the beginning of knowledge.” When we start to recognize that we are not the center of the universe and when we can acknowledge that the severity of our emotions and feelings do not make them more real or more important in the scope of the world, we can start to see more objectively and without a filter orienting everything around us.

 

“It isn’t true that life is painful or that it’s painful to think about life,” Pessoa writes, “What is true is that our pain is only as serious and important as we pretend it to be.” Anything in our lives can take on extreme meaning and value. At the same time, anything in our life can be tossed out without care. What we focus on, where we put our attention and energy, and what we decide to be important is what will become our reality. Pessoa recognized this through his extreme self reflection, and from this point he became aware of his own insignificance and how little his thoughts and desires truly mattered to the rest of the universe. Any pain that he felt is simply a pain that he felt at that moment. Any experience he had was fleeting, because he was not a permanent fixture in the universe and not something that overwhelmingly shaped the universe.

 

Seeing this in ourselves and becoming aware of who we are and where we exist in the world is important if we want to do the most good with the time that we have. If we choose to live completely within our own mind, then we risk living in a way where we put ourselves before all others. We will seek more and more and attempt to raise ourselves above others while decreasing the pain we feel. Alternatively, we can step outside ourselves and try to engage in the world in a way that will improve the interactions between us and everyone else. We can try to make the world a better place for other individuals to interact within, even if they are not interacting with us directly, and even if we don’t directly see a benefit to ourselves. The reason to live in this world is because it is a more accurate reflection of the reality we live within. Our brain will only ever perceive so much, and rather than making up stories about what it means, we can live in a world where we try to continually develop a more objective understanding of what we see and experience, so that we can do the most good.

 

Pessoa closes in writing, “Seeing myself frees me from myself. I almost smile, not because I understand myself, but because, having become other, I am no longer able to understand myself.”

Maintaining Your Character

“It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character.”

 

Ryan Holiday starts one of the chapters in his book Ego is the Enemy with the above quote from Marcus Aurelius. Holiday, in both Ego is the Enemy and his previous book The Obstacle is the Way, outlines principles of stoic philosophy and connects stoicism with the modern day. The only thing we can control, Holiday explains, is how we react to the events of the world around us. We are going to experience a lot of good and bad luck, and it is how we react to the events of our life that determine whether we will be successful.

 

No matter what goes on around us, Holiday argues that we can always think about how we are behaving and reacting and choose to act in the way that will be the most helpful for us. Whatever bad luck, failure, loss, or challenge rolls our way, we can decide how we will react to it and what impact it will have on who we are. We may lose the physical ability to do something, we may lose a spouse or family member, our property could be taken away from us, our career paths may be derailed, or our Facebook post might not get any likes. In each of these situations, we could react as though our life is over and as though there is no possible recovery. If we do, then we will create an almost self-fulfilling prophecy where the negative thoughts and opinions of our minds manifest in our lives. Stoic philosophy would encourage us to look at the loss around us and see that within the misery exists the opportunity to display strength in character and to maintain clear thoughts.

 

Most of us will never be tortured in our lives, but Holiday does give examples in his two books of prisoners of war who used stoic philosophy and maintained their character to stay united and survive the horrors of torture. There are people who are trafficked and exploited, and their pain and trauma is certainly real and help and guidance is certainly something they should seek out, but a touch of self-awareness can help everyone look at their current situation and think about how they can move forward in a positive way. For most of us, we can recognize that we will struggle and will feel as though things could never get worse, but we can also remember that people have faced far worse pain and recovered.

 

Ultimately, we can look at the negative pieces in our lives and the decisions we make each day and try to move in a direction which continually improves our character. The good things and the bad things in our life are only good or bad based on our opinions and decisions. Nothing can ruin our lives unless we decide that it has the power to ruin us. Choosing to maintain our character in any situation always gives us the option of being strong in the face of obstacles and turning those obstacles into learning opportunities for ourselves and the people around us.