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  • Cindy Mundahl

Avoiding Pain


I often find myself inspired to write about my personal experiences with the hope that they may resonate with someone else, yet at the same time there’s a voice in my head asking, “Does the world really need to hear from you right now?” It’s a good question, one which I wish more people would ask of themselves. I can’t deny that I write from a perspective of privilege at a time of great suffering in the world. I also can’t deny that because I hold the privileges of health, safety, and gainful employment among many others during this pandemic, I also have the privilege of deciding if and when I expose myself to the pain and suffering that exists outside of my own home. This is always true, of course, that we have the option of turning away from pain and suffering, but the choice to turn away feels even more enticing to me the longer the pandemic rages.


I’ve always had a great aversion to pain. I think we all do to some extent. I have a low tolerance for physical, as well as emotional pain. My first reaction is to avoid pain at all costs thinking that if I allow myself to feel it, I’ll shatter into a thousand pieces and that will be the end of me. I believe this aversion to pain is why I often lose consciousness when faced with physical pain I fear will be intolerable. My initial response to emotional pain is to deny its existence, to push it down deep inside of myself and pretend it doesn’t exist. I try to counter this instinct through meditation, which teaches me that I can sit with painful and uncomfortable emotions and watch how they pass through me, leaving my body eventually without me falling to pieces.


I still hold this deep aversion to pain even after experiencing a breakdown in which I learned the hard way that avoiding emotional pain comes at great cost. I know that I must allow myself to feel pain so that I can also feel joy. The two emotions are inseparable, yet my brain still tries to keep them separate, pursuing joy while denying pain. It never works and I must relearn the relationship between joy and pain all over again. I also need to relearn that when I turn away from the pain of others, it also means I turn away from my own pain. My body can’t seem to decipher my own pain from that of others. Turning one off, means I turn off all painful and uncomfortable emotions. This leads me to feeling numb, disconnected from myself and others and feeling as though I’m living life in a fog. I become a bystander in my own life, devoid of emotions or connection to myself or others. When I fear feeling pain more than anything, I stop living. I sleepwalk through life trying to avoid pain and it leads me to dehumanize myself and others.


Fear of pain is tricky. Fear and pain often coexist for a reason. Our bodies are hardwired to fear pain. It’s what keeps us from sticking our hands in fire and burning ourselves repeatedly. Fear of pain helps us to survive as a species, but we can't avoid emotional pain. It's the core of what makes us human. In feeling our pain, it's possible for us to grow and evolve and to become more compassionate human beings. Bypassing pain leads to disconnection from ourselves and others. I believe I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to find the balance between allowing myself to feel emotional pain at a rate and volume that doesn’t tear me apart and leave me unable to function. I can’t take in all of the suffering of the world, but I can allow myself to feel and react to the pain that presents itself in my daily life, whatever its origins.


Privilege is a great insulator if we allow it to be. It can be used to separate ourselves from the suffering of other people, from examining our own roles in that suffering and even acknowledging that pain and suffering exist. I’m trying not to insulate myself from the pain of human suffering. It’s a difficult ask of myself on most days, but one that’s necessary for me to remain connected to myself and the human experience, especially during this pandemic.


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