The Purpose of Pain

Published on April 6th, 2020

Imagine a pregnant mother telling the doctor that she didn't want any pain medications during the final, excruciatingly painful moments of labor. She must have a screw loose in her head, right? 10 years ago, I might have agreed. Modern science has given us all of these amazing tools in the form of medications. These allow us to skip over the bad parts (e.g., labor) and get right to the good part (e.g., the healthy baby). So why wouldn't you take the easy way out? Why would someone choose to embrace pain?

Halfway through my wife's pregnancy with Evelyn, we took a class that completely changed our worldview. Having both been born in the 80s and having spent most of my life in the US, my wife and I came to believe that medication was the only option. However, the HypnoBirthing class challenged that assumption. We heard stories of women that were able to somehow get so in tune with their body and mind that they were able to give birth without the screaming terror that we see on TV and in movies. We watched videos to prove the point, and, to our surprise, it wasn't as insane as we once thought. We ended up following in their footsteps and had a fantastic birth experience. Yes, Emily went through a lot of pain, but she was fully present and in the zone through the entire experience… and not one scream.

A Society Addicted to Pain Medication

Pain medication is prevalent in many other aspects of western culture. "Take two aspirin and call me in the morning." We're provided suggestions and recommendations for pain medication from birth (in labor) to death (in hospice) and everything in between.

Is there any surprise we continue to have an opioid epidemic? Despite the incredibly addictive nature, doctors feel compelled to offer prescriptions for routine outpatient care. Certainly, nobody wants to be in so much pain they strain a back muscle, but are we to avoid pain at all cost? Must we take the default position that the best solution is the complete elimination of our body's communication with us?

What If Pain Was a Message?

Humans are in a constant state of learning from feedback loops. We seek pleasure and avoid pain. Both become motivating factors for us to make different life choices and to fully understand human experience. A kid that has no pain during a cavity might not have any motivation to stop eating sugar and may end up with 10 more. An alcoholic that gets blackout drunk rather than face their fears may spend decades in a holding pattern rather than growing as a person.

When I was an athlete in college, I relied too heavily on pain meds to continue to compete. I spent almost an hour a day in sport medicine because my body was clearly injured with strained ligaments and stress fractures. Still, by taking the meds, yes, I was able to compete. But I ended up causing much more long term damage that I'm dealing with now.

Now I would never wish trauma on a person because the effects can last a lifetime. However, some of the biggest traumas that I've had in life have also been the most important lessons. I learned empathy towards those in similar situations. I became more grateful for all the things I had. I didn't take life or people for granted. I made sure to not take careless risks. I learned how to prioritize healing my mental and emotional wounds rather than letting them fester.

I remember someone once referring to negative emotions as "action signals," and I loved this metaphor. If you look at each negative emotion as a signal, you are now aware enough to take action to enact change. This is a much more empowered approach to life! Rather than numb out the signal over and over again, you make decisions and take actions to change it.

This may be one of the many purposes of pain, and we lose that purpose if all we do it shut it out.

Hospice

When someone dies, one of the first questions that most of us ask for think of is whether or not they died peacefully. After all, who would wish that someone's final moment in life was filled with pain and agony? Why should our loved ones suffer?

I had never considered an alternative approach until I heard Zach Bush describe his experiences in hospice. Is it preferable to have a loved one under so much morphine that they are almost in a coma? Instead, what if the pain made them feel the most alive and present they've ever been in months while feeling the human touch of a hug from loved ones holding them? Similar to birth, which is both a moment of pain as well as a moment of beauty, what if they experienced their loved ones up until the last breath on this earth. Is that somehow a worse fate?

Certainly, there are limits to this thought experiment. Dying by being tortured or murdered is not a preferred way to go. But perhaps neither is dying as a vegetable with no ability to hear or say "I love you" and look at a loved one in the eye during our last moments together.

Pain's Purpose

So what is the purpose of pain? I don't have the answer, but I've started to question our current solution of playing pain whack-a-mole at all costs. Maybe rock bottom is something we need to hit before we give up our substances. Maybe depression's dark night of the soul is necessary for us to take bold action. Maybe we're supposed to feel pain touching the hot stove so that we don't cause further damage. Maybe we need our kids to feel failure so that they have a reference point when they achieve success.

What if pain is simply a misunderstood part of our human experience? What if it wasn't an experience to resent but a gift wrapped in a bundle of thorns waiting for us to untangle it to find the rosebud inside?

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About Rick Manelius

Quick Stats: CTO of Contact Mapping. Author of Winning the Lottery Within. Graduated from MIT in '03 (BS) and '09 (PhD). Life hacker and peak performance enthusiast. This blog is my experiment in creative writing, self-expression, and sharing what I've learned along my journey. For more information, read my full bio here or contact me.