Our Efforts to Avoid Pain

Our Efforts to Avoid Pain

I had an amazing track coach at Reno High School. His name was Mark Smith (everyone called him Smitty) and like all great coaches, he knew what high school students needed in their workouts and in their heads in order to be successful both in sports and in life.

 

Some of the neighborhoods that Reno High School draws from are among the nicest and most expensive in all of Reno. Many students have very dedicated parents who will do anything to help their children succeed, be happy, and avoid pain and suffering. However, these parents often miss an important point, a point that Coach Smitty would always remind parents and athletes, “you can never eliminate suffering, and you can’t protect your child [or yourself] from all pain.”

 

Sam Quinones, author of Dreamland would certainly agree. In his book he writes, “In heroin addicts, I had seen the debasement that comes from the loss of free will and enslavement to what amounts to an idea: permanent pleasure, numbness, and the avoidance of pain.”

 

Our society, in TV shows and commercials, continually pushes a narrative that we should be happy and have lots of consumer goods in our lives. We seem to believe that every moment of our lives should be nothing but entertainment and enjoyment, and we pursue that, continuously trying to buy our happiness and avoid any possible pain or suffering. As Coach Smitty said, however, this is not possible, and as Quinones shows throughout Dreamland, this can lead to dangerous consequences. Part of the opioid problem in our country, Quinones argues, is that we place too high a value on never feeling pain and suffering, and we under-invest in the real things that would help us actually overcome and reasonably manage and respond to pain and suffering.

 

Our mental health, counseling, and therapy services are under-developed and costly. Our economic system doesn’t provide people the support they need in difficult times, and we don’t do a good job of helping get people into jobs that actually feel meaningful. We have built suburbs and isolated ourselves from community, and when we face hard times, we are afraid to admit it and don’t have many close people to turn to. We seek avoidance from these challenges with chemicals like alcohol, opioids, marijuana, or worse. We try to blunt the pain and reduce the suffering artificially, which doesn’t work, and doesn’t help us feel happy or fulfilled.

 

We have a myth that we can eliminate all the suffering in our lives and in the lives of our loved ones. However, the reality is that we must work to overcome that suffering together. As a team, we can support each other, train each other to be strong during adversity, and learn how to put in hard work and lean into the uncomfortable reality of the world to find a place where we can accept and appropriately respond to suffering and pain.

 

Coach Smitty passed away on October 12th, 2018. He was a truly great influence in my life and in the life of others. I hope everyone has a Coach Smitty in their lives, and please reach out to say hi and thanks if you do.

Don’t Run Out To Meet Your Suffering

I’m not sure what it is about American culture today, but we seem to be really good at worrying about almost everything. We fear lots of uncertainties and spend a lot of time uptight about things that might go wrong. While a  certain level of worry is ok, being what encourages us to use calendars, set reminders, and buy life insurance, we often slip into continual dread and fear that everything is going to crash.

 

“How often has the unexpected happened!” Writes Seneca in Letters from a Stoic, “How often has the expected never come to pass! And even though it is ordained to be, what does it avail to run out to meet your suffering?”

 

The first line of the quote above is where many of us seem  to live our lives, at least when we are dealing with fear and anxiety. We worry about the wrongs that could happen and about the misfortune that could strike at any moment. Ruminating in this state has the power to push us into depression, ruin our health, and deteriorate our relationships, potentially even bringing about the terrible outcomes we originally feared.

 

But that is not all of Seneca’s quote. What we believe is certain to happen often isn’t. What we predict won’t always come to pass, and while sometimes that may be a huge negative, there is no reason to live within that negativity before it has reached us. We shouldn’t run forward and live with what we fear will happen, or live with the fear the something we terrible will unexpectedly happen before it has. Don’t run out to meet your suffering.

 

Seneca continues, “Even bad fortune is fickle. Perhaps it will come, perhaps not; in the meantime it is not. So look forward to better things.” 

 

All we have in life is the current moment. We can generally anticipate the range of things that will happen in the next moment of our lives and we can build smart plans for the future, but we live in the here and now, not in the past and not in the future our minds are planning. The good that we hope for may play out, but things may also go poorly. If we constantly live ahead of our current moment, we will be distraught by the possible bad things that could happen. Seneca encourages us to remember that the good and the bad might not come, and that as a response we should lean toward being hopeful and use the current moment to try to shape a positive future. Don’t be stuck ruminating over the negative what-ifs of the future and ultimately ruin where you are right now.

An Artifact of the Media

In his book The Most Good You Can Do, Princeton professor Peter Singer introduces the idea that the world is improving and becoming a less dangerous place as we become more globalized, and as effective altruists and average citizens make greater efforts to help those who are the most disadvantaged.  Singer states, “If the world seems to be a more violent and dangerous place than ever before, however, this impression is an artifact of the media.” I strongly agree with Singer’s statement and believe that in many ways our world is an improved place, even though that idea is not presented to us by our politicians and national media.

 

Despite claims that we need to make America great again and that daily life in the United States is in danger, many people face few risks of even being moderately uncomfortable.  For me, remembering how challenging life is for those in third world countries helps provide me a better perspective of where I am, and how sever my struggles are relative to others.  Singer would argue that effective altruists are able to live their lives with greater happiness because they are able to recognize this fact and take steps to reduce their own needs while using their resources to help others.  When you can avoid fear, jealousy, and gluttony in the United States, you are able to live quite comfortably without being pressured by the negatives in capitalism. You are then able to use capitalism to your advantage by not consuming and spending more, but by consuming less and donating more in an effort to assist those who need it most.

 

Singer presents information in his book which backs up his claim that the world is slowly improving. He cites statistics from UNICEF that he included in a book written in 2009 which showed that nearly 10 million children were dying from avoidable causes related to poverty each year. The most recent statistic available from UNICEF as Singer completed The Most Good You Can Do in 2015 showed that 6.3 million children were dying from poverty related avoidable causes.  The reduced child mortality rates gave Singer hope, and to him served as proof that we were getting to a world with less suffering and unnecessary death.  Singer did not assert that effective altruists or any specific program was the reason for the reduced death rate, but he presented the information as a ray of light in the face of the doom and gloom of our national media.  We are bombarded with negativity every time we turn on the TV or pull up social media, but Singer argues that this negativity is created by our media consuming habits which dial in on the negative and tragic.  Our perception of the world has become worse and worse as we have taken major steps to shape the world into a better place.