Humans Normalize Everything: It's Called Adapting to the Pain

When I was seven-years old, I slipped on the ice and cracked a molar in half. It hurt like hell and the dentist put a cap on it because my teeth weren't fully formed and it would've made my mouth look like Rudy Giuliani's if he'd pulled it.

Later, as I basically avoided the dentist as often as I could, when in college, the gold crown that had protected my cracked-in-half tooth for thirteen years wore so thin that it developed a hole, the pain of exposure set in. Because I was a stupid person (I was in my twenties so, of course...), I didn't get it replaced. I spent a good three years experiencing a low-grade headache constantly. I drank a lot and that masked the pain most of the time. I got used to being in pain. It was wholly unnecessary pain but that was beside the point. I handled it, acclimated to the electric throb of exposed nerves in my mouth, because that's what humans do. 

*** 

At least that's what humans used to do.

Lately, it seems that the standard party line is that none of us should have to endure any pain. We avoid discomfort, we take drugs to eliminate any sense of anxiety (and then brag about which cocktail we're taking), we equate offense and insult to real violence. The terms abuse and assault have been expanded to mean any sort of emotional anguish visited upon someone.

What is the consequence of this ever growing list of what constitutes pain, and is there a value to learning to endure it?

***

Not much of a sports kid growing up, I had to learn that I was morbidly uncoordinated and unathletic by trial and error. One summer, I decided to try baseball. I was put out in right field and told to catch pop fly balls if they came my way.

Except that when someone would hit the ball in my direction, I was so terrified of the ball smashing into my face that I could never catch it. One of the dad coaches came over one practice and threw ball at me, beaning me in the face.

"Did that hurt?"
"YES!"
"Did you survive?"
"...yeah..."
"Then catch the ball next time. Getting hit in the face isn't that bad after all."

It was a dickish thing to do but the point was made and I caught most of the balls hit my way after that. On the other hand, I discontinued playing baseball.

***

We know that in order for muscle to grow stronger, it has to be pushed a bit beyond its limits, tear some, then regrow. We know that as we continue to use anti-bacterial soaps and washes, we slowly degrade our body's ability to handle germs that naturally adapt and learn to resist the anti-bacterial agents, making us more susceptible to infections. Is it similar for emotional strength and weakness?

Lots of talk about white fragility and the idea that equality for whites feels like oppression. It's a very American premise considering it comes from people claiming that their pain is no longer acceptable so their (perceived) oppressors should be made to endure it. This need for others to suffer postulates that learning to stomach a sense of shame and culpability will possibly open the eyes of those blind to their own privilege. Not so much about rehabilitation as punishment.

In other words, the sustained exposure to discomfort and emotional pain is good for those who truly need it.

If pain is beneficial in creating a stronger sense of empathy and justice then the recidivism rate of criminals released from prison would be nil.

***

Over the summer I was trolled. A small group of people called me names on the internet. It hurt my feelings, it made me furious. It was a big soupy bag of emotional distress. At the time it was the Most. Important. Fucking. Thing. In. The. World. There were nights I couldn't sleep over the injustice of it all.

And then I completely screwed my back up at the gym. I couldn't really sit up straight for a few days and sleeping was a Gordian Knot on a bed of nails listening to Enya.

"Ah!" I cried. "This back pain is beyond my choice to respond to. I can't just ignore this. But the vicious internet turds? Them I can ignore." Granted, having the emotional intelligence of a thirteen-year-old didn't help in the Free Your Mind of the Ass-mob Challenge but the lesson remains. Physical pain, whether helpful in the suffering or just a warning sign that you're too old to lift big weights without warming up, is not a choice. Emotional pain is always the one we choose to wallow in.

***

Life on the the planet is filled with aches and pains, heartache and emotional devastation. No one gets a pass no matter how white or male or heterosexual you are—everyone gets older and starts to discover physical pain that slows them down, the acute feelings of loss that accompany existence and the fact that sleeping on a strange bed can screw you up for days.

Avoidance of pain is a natural desire but reality is that we humans eventually normalize our pain. We cope. We adjust. We struggle and celebrate the days with less pain and hunker down and manage the days with more. We are, after all, an animal with no real fur, no claws or massive canines, essentially naked on a planet hellbent on killing us and using us for food. And we adapt—to freezing climates, flood plains deserts and jungles.

I'd like to believe that our ability to take pain—physical and emotional—and learn to navigate through it makes us stronger and more capable of the challenges of old age (when both types of pain are at their most impressive.)

I do believe that the consequences of expanding our definitions of what is and is not tolerable in the pain department is like that anti-bacterial soap. It smells good and certainly keeps things clean. But Life doesn't give a shit about our feels and the bacteria is adapting to beat us to death and eat us from the inside.

"Did that hurt?"
"YES!"
"Did you survive?"
"...yeah..."
"Then catch the ball next time. Getting hit in the face isn't that bad after all."