Last time we looked at the benefits of gratitude, and if you’ve been practising you should be feeling warm and fuzzy by now. Which is a good thing because in this post we delve into the realm of pain. Nobody likes it. Everybody experiences it. So it’s about time we got to grips with it.
Pain makes people behave in strange ways: 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?
No, 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 in current situation of environmental and social turmoil. Our survival instincts become blocked when we don’t acknowledge the reality in front of us. How you feel about the state of the world can be buried beneath a mound of denial, rationalisation or depression. Even if you’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.
There are many reasons for this resistance to reality and cognitive dissonance plays a large part. You experience dissonance when you’re confronted with information (whether from outside or from feelings) that’s inconsistent with your beliefs about yourself or the world. The only way to reduce the dissonance is to change your beliefs. This isn’t easy, so most of us resort to various methods to remove the inner tension instead. Such as:
- 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 is despite the fact that most 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.
Active Hope outlines seven common types of resistance to the world 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 so decide to shrug it off. The media, social networks, 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 the environment, 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 go on marches and 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
The tendency to repress your true feelings and deny the facts of reality has many causes, both personal and social. It’s often the case that an individual’s fears about the world will be explained away and blamed on personal issues instead – ‘it’s not the system at fault, it’s you.’
In other words, the fact that you’re depressed about the alarming numbers of animals being driven to extinction, for example, has nothing to do with animals dying. It’s your fault for not being able to cope with your feelings about animals dying. When this happens, it seems 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 you didn’t feel pain you wouldn’t know to take your hand out of the fire. It acts as a negative feedback loop: pain occurs which draws your attention to something that needs to be fixed. You respond to reduce the pain and solve the problem. If you 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
This creates 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 and doesn’t ask the question. He’s far too polite and besides, everybody else seems to be ignoring the problem as well.
Years pass, and Parsifal has many adventures. He grows up a bit and gets told off by a hermit for his failure to ask the question. When he eventually finds himself back in the Grail castle, the king is still suffering. Thankfully, this time, Parsifal remembers what to do and asks the question:
What ails thee?
The spell preventing the wound from healing is lifted, the king recovers and the land around the castle begins to bloom.
This story shows that when we acknowledge our pain we feel better. It may seem surprising, but it’s just how repression works. Once you stop repressing how you really feel, all that energy you’ve been using to hold those feelings locked down and out of sight, is released. You feel more alive and better able to cope with life. You realise that you’re bigger than your fears and this can help you to take action to change things.
In Active Hope there are various exercises that can bring you back in touch with your feelings and help you to express your concern for the world. Here’s 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:
- When I think about the condition of our world, I would say things are getting…
- Some concerns I have include…
- Some feelings that come up when I think about these are…
- Ways I avoid these feelings include…
- Some ways I can use these feelings are…
Recognising and sharing your real feelings and pain for the world can open up communication with others and bring us closer. It makes you feel less alone when you know there are others who feel as you do. This empowers you to make changes and take action to move the 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
Next time we’ll look at how we can expand the sense of self