What ails thee? Transforming Pain

Read the updated version of this post: Active Hope and the Healing Power of Transforming Pain

I’m sure you’ve all done it: you feel terrible, like a zombie in training, and you run into a friend who asks how you are. ‘Fine!’ you reply, grinning like your brain has been removed and secretly wishing you really were a zombie because then maybe people would leave you alone and stop asking how you are…

It works the other way too. When you ask someone how they are, do you really want to know? Do you want them to regale you with the intimate details of their malfunctioning bowels, lavishly illustrated with a PowerPoint presentation?

I didn’t think so.


Pain makes us uncomfortable, and not just physically. When confronted by a reality we don’t like, we tend to turn away and pretend everything is fine. Even in a life-threatening situation, people will look the other way if they see others doing the same.

This has serious implications for our current situation of environmental and social collapse. Our survival instincts become blocked when we don’t acknowledge the reality in front of us. How we feel about the state of the world can be buried beneath a mound of denial, rationalisation or depression. Even if we’re aware of what’s going on, there can still be an inner tension between the impulse to do something and resistance to doing it.

Viva la Resistance

There are many reasons for this resistance to reality and cognitive dissonance plays a large part. We experience dissonance when we’re confronted with information (whether from outside or from feelings) that’s inconsistent with our beliefs (about ourselves or the world). The only way to reduce the dissonance is to change our beliefs. This isn’t easy, so we resort to various methods to return to balance:

  • Misperception
  • Rejection or refutation of the information
  • Seeking support from others with the same beliefs
  • Persuading others to agree with us

For example, climate change deniers have made it easier for people to dismiss the entire environmental crisis and write it off as ‘just another conspiracy.’ This being despite the fact that many of the problems we face have nothing to do with whether the planetary temperature is changing or what its long-term effects may or may not be.

Climate Change denial

Active Hope outlines seven common types of resistance to this crisis:

1. I don’t believe it’s that dangerous

You discover something disturbing, such as the rates of cancer around nuclear power stations, but then see others ignoring the information or acting like it isn’t a problem, and decide to shrug it off. The media, newspapers, and TV can amplify this effect, reinforcing the idea that there isn’t really a problem.

2. It isn’t my job to sort this out

You see the problems but don’t feel responsible. What can one person do to help polar bears, or prevent drought, or replace lost topsoil? There’s a tendency to hand responsibility over to ‘the experts’ or the people in power. You might look after your little bit of the planet: your home and garden, but beyond that it’s somebody else’s problem.

3. I don’t want to stand out from the crowd

You feel alarmed about what’s happening but when you look around, everyone else seems unconcerned. If nobody else is talking about it, you don’t want to risk making them (or yourself) uncomfortable by bringing it up. The pressure to conform means you keep your feelings to yourself, no matter how much it hurts.

4. This information threatens my commercial &/or political interests

If you have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, facing the reality of what’s happening undermines your professional reputation and livelihood. To change the way you do business would mean losing profits and handing victory to your competitors. The industries that benefit from our current model spend millions discrediting information that would threaten their futures.

5. It’s too upsetting so I prefer not to think about it

You used to watch the news and keep up to date with all the latest reports on climate change, but now every fresh emergency is another knife to your heart. You can’t live like this, so you switch off, order an extra large double latte with a hit of rum and forget about it.

6. I feel paralysed. I see the danger but I don’t know what to do.

You see the problems clearly and used to fight for change, but it just keeps getting worse. You forgo the latte and head straight for the rum and you don’t stop until you’ve drained the bottle. Sob…

7. There’s no point in doing anything. It won’t make any difference.

You’re well aware of the dire nature of the crisis but you believe nothing you do will change anything. We’re already past the point of no return, so what’s the point? You feel powerless and have stopped making plans for the future. Maybe you’ll have some rum, maybe you won’t. (You probably will…)

Pain is good for you

I'M SadThe tendency to repress our true feelings and deny the facts of reality has many causes, both personal and social. Sometimes our fears about the world are explained away as a distraction from personal issues – ‘it’s not the system at fault, it’s you.’ It can seem easier to cave in to the pressure and conform, keep your pain hidden and soldier on.

But at what cost?

Pain serves a useful function. If we didn’t feel pain we wouldn’t know to take our hand out of the fire. It acts as a negative feedback loop: pain occurs which draws our attention to something that needs to be fixed. We respond to reduce the pain and solve the problem. If we ignore the pain, the problem will get worse.

Pain can save your life.

“There’s a strong current in mainstream culture that views depressing news, gloomy thoughts, and feelings of distress as ‘negative experiences’ from which we need to protect ourselves. The notion that we should steer clear of anything too negative sets up avoidance as a default strategy. Yet the more we shy away from something we find difficult, the less confident we become that we can deal with it. Avoidance easily becomes a habit. And when avoidance of emotional distress becomes the habit of a culture, this low level of confidence in our ability to cope creates a barrier to publicly acknowledging upsetting information. This in turn leads to a selective screening out of aspects of reality that seem too painful to bear, too distressing to contemplate.” – Active Hope

Another feedback loop – one that can only lead to disaster…

The Parsifal Question

In the story of the Holy Grail, a knight called Parsifal stumbles across a castle where an old king is wounded and in great pain. The wound won’t heal unless the right question is asked. Unfortunately, Parsifal fails the test. He’s far too polite and besides, everybody else seems to be ignoring the problem as well.

Years pass, he has many adventures, grows up a bit and gets told off by a hermit for his failure to ask the question. When he finds himself back in the Grail castle, the king is still suffering. Thankfully, Parsifal remembers what to do and asks the question: What ails thee?

Galahad, Bors, and Percival achieve the Grail, a tapestry with figures by Edward Burne-Jones
Galahad, Bors, and Percival achieve the Grail, a tapestry with figures by Edward Burne-Jones

The spell preventing the wound from healing is lifted, the king recovers and the land around the castle begins to bloom.

When we acknowledge our pain we feel better. It may seem surprising, but it’s just how repression works. Once we stop repressing how we really feel, all that energy we’ve been using to hold those feelings locked down and out of sight, is released. We feel more alive and better able to cope with what life throws at us. We realise we are bigger than our fears and this can help us take action to change things.

In Active Hope there are various exercises to try that can bring you back in touch with your feelings and express your concern for the world. Here is one based on the Parsifal question – it can be done with others and shared, or you can just write the sentences in a journal and see what comes up…

Open Sentences on Concern

Share with someone how you feel by completing these sentences. One person speaks while the other listens without interrupting. Talk for two minutes or so for each sentence and say whatever comes naturally. Don’t censor yourself. When you’re done, swop roles and go through the questions again:

1. When I think about the condition of our world, I would say things are getting…

2. Some concerns I have include…

3. Some feelings that come up when I think about these are…

4. Ways I avoid these feelings include…

5. Some ways I can use these feelings are…

Recognising and sharing our real feelings and pain for the world opens up communication with others and brings us closer. It makes us feel less alone when we know there are others who feel as we do. This empowers us to make changes and take action to move our world onto a more positive path.

“If we felt the pain of loss each time an ecosystem was destroyed, a species wiped out, or a child killed by war or starvation, we wouldn’t be able to continue living the way we do. It would tear us apart inside. The losses continue because they aren’t registered, they aren’t marked, they aren’t seen as important. By choosing to honour the pain of loss rather than discounting it, we break the spell that numbs us to the dismantling of our world.” – Active Hope

In case all this pain has caused a loss of perspective, here’s a reminder from Shavawn M Berry to practice gratitude even, and especially, in dark times: A Gratitude Prayer

Next time we begin to see with new eyes as we widen our sense of self by connecting with the world in Self and World: Who are you?

>Read the rest of the series here

Image: Grail



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