This is going to be a little controversial, and easily misunderstood, but I think it’s an important thought. It’s on the relationship between pain and weakness. I say controversial and misunderstood because I don’t mean weakness as an insult. I’m not even sure I mean it as the opposite of strength. I mean as the opposite of resilience or toughness, so perhaps I really mean the relationship between fragility and pain.
It shouldn’t be surprising that there is one. Pain is a sense, just like vision or hearing, except that pain communicates damage or the possibility of damage. And if fragile things are things that break, the pain must be communicating fragility. It follows then, that when we are tougher and more resilient we not only deal better with pain, but actually feel less of it in the same situation compared to a more fragile person, because we are in less danger of breaking.
This holds true for physical pain, emotional pain, and more abstract mental pain like anxiety. Let’s consider a few examples and see what it tells us.
In the physical world we have examples like physical therapy, or back pain. Pain after injuries is strongly correlated to failing to complete physical therapy in order to become stronger. The weaker you are, the more unstable, and the more scar tissue or damaged joints will hurt. If you build up your muscles and tendons, your joints and back will feel better than they otherwise would. Physical resilience is built by good nutrition, good sleep, and strong muscle. Do well in these areas and you will feel better and better weather injury and sickness when they come.
In the emotional world, we have examples like childhood trauma, or soldier’s PTSD, or loss of a family member. These are terrible things. But some people – even young children – experience them and move on to be healthy and well-adjusted individuals. As unpopular as it is to say, we know that it’s because some people are less emotionally fragile. But if fragility is part of this, then resilience can be built against it. Studies show emotional or psychological resilience is built by having helpful beliefs and habits, a healthy religious life, a good support system of family and friends, and/or by having the recognition of society around you (this has been shown to help a great deal with PTSD – the more the public is thankful for the veterans’ service, the lower the rates of PTSD). By contrast, people who don’t have or who have neglected these things, are much more likely to break down in the face of trauma.
In the mental world we face stressors like the loss of a job, or another financial blow. This is similar to an emotional blow and can be mitigated by factors like those in the first paragraph. However, these practical fears can also be allayed by good financial planning, maintaining a good network, having the skills to perform basic home and car maintenance yourself, or a host of other practical skill investments that will give you more options when the chips are down. If you have them, you will feel less fear and anxiety – less mental ‘pain’ – than someone else suffering the same event who has $10 in the bank, and no practical skills. You will know your breaking point is still far enough away that you don’t need to panic.
Sometimes to point out these truths can be taken as offensive or insulting – particularly the truths about emotional and physical pain. We aren’t supposed to say that there are things a person can do to be less of a victim. But that’s not helpful on the individual level, and if you want to learn the lesson, you can’t think that way.
What is the lesson? That if you want to have some measure of control in the face of the pain life can throw at you, that control must be based on your own action. That means both action to prepare, and action to keep going when it happens.
Sometimes the form of the action that makes us more resilient to a specific pain can be counterintuitive at first glance. To weather the pain of the loss of loved ones, it is best to have invested more in other people rather than less. If you’ve built deep relationships with friends and family, they can help you through losing one of them. Even if everyone close to you is lost in an enormous tragedy, you will be more resilient with a well-developed skill to get close to people and build relationships than if you are suddenly left alone without that skill. And when an injury or the deterioration of age comes it is often best to train despite the pain rather than waiting for the time when you feel better. Doing so may hurt more at first, but recovery or mitigation of the injury will be faster if you keep your strength up. If you wait until it doesn’t hurt to build your strength back up, you will wait forever.
People who understand this truth – that the right actions might hurt now but will make us tougher later – end up doing much better in life than those who don’t. If we live long enough we’ve all seen that person who coasts along in life’s path of least resistance and then someday can’t deal with an event that others would overcome. Don’t be that person if you can help it.