Two Kinds of Pain: Useless and Useful or What I Learned from Frank Underwood

Two Kinds of Pain: Useless and Useful or What I Learned from Frank Underwood

by Don Hall

“There are two kinds of pain. The sort of pain that makes you strong, or useless pain. The sort of pain that's only suffering. I have no patience for useless things.” — Frank Underwood (House of Cards, Season 1)

I’ve been doing some deep dive viewing of the Gordon Ramsay canon on Youtube just lately. Sure, it’s reality TV. Yes, it has a very specific formula and is manipulated for maximum narrative effective. It’s entertainment, for chrissakes, what do you expect?

What compels me to watch the shows is simple: each episode (of Kitchen Nightmares or Hotel Hell) spins a circumstance where well-meaning and strong-willed people are on the ropes financially and cannot figure out how they got there and what to do to get out. These are people who had dreams, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and sweat to capture them and are now failing. Ramsay comes in, breaks them down by pointing out the flaws in execution, then builds them up once he figures out the thing that is preventing them from seeing the flaws in the first place.

It’s usually some sort of psychological blockage due to ego or a tragedy or a stubborn resistance to self reflection.

It’s the ultimate tough love narrative. Face your pain, face your fear, and overcome it. Also, here’s a huge and expensive makeover for your business courtesy of the network to help.

None of us can escape pain and loss. It’s perhaps the most constant aspect of living in the world even beyond death and taxes. Unavoidable, pain is simply going to happen. Physical pain, emotional pain. Get used to it, fuckers, because you cannot live without the accompanying discomfort. No safe space on the planet or in your mind can help.

Suffering, on the other hand, is a choice.

Via Amy Wax (and bear with me because this example is most used as a way to diminish the argument in favor of reparations to African Americans due to the hobbling of their cultural and economic existence by chattel slavery but not in this case):

A pedestrian crosses the street at the crosswalk and with the light. 

A driver runs a red light, hitting the pedestrian, causing major physical damage. 

Under the law and common sense, the driver should be responsible for returning the pedestrian to his previous status by paying for medical care and rehabilitation. But what if that rehab requires physical therapy that the pedestrian refuses to participate in? The pedestrian’s injured status is not fair and was not his fault. Nonetheless, the driver is powerless to return the pedestrian to his former status without some effort by the pedestrian. So it is with the racial victim. Not his fault, not fair, but requires some additional effort on his part to return to a “normal” status.

Wax uses the parable to underscore the need for efforts and responsibility both on the driver (White Supremacy in play) and the pedestrian (the Black Community at large) to fully eradicate the deleterious effects of systemic and personal racism in this country. Without some definable reparations, there is no fix to this. Without some hard rehab on the part of the victims of racism, there is likewise no fix.

Take the parable and add a twist. The driver escapes and pays no restitution. Like a wildfire in California or a hurricane in New Orleans, the pedestrian is laid low and has no one to take responsibility. Not the pedestrian’s fault but still his responsibility to dig down and work to return to as close to normal as possible. If he chooses to simply suffer, that’s all that will happen. Suffering. Useless pain.

There’s pain that hurts and pain that builds. Which pain you endure is the pain you choose.

Underwood, in the opening scene of House of Cards, makes his above statement about a wounded dog and kills the dog. “There…no more pain.” he intones.

Psychopathic? Sociopathic? Yup. And given that the character is grotesquely Machiavellian and designed to demonstrate the evil among us, probably not the best solution to suffering. Yet, the concept of useless suffering versus motivating pain is sound.

Except that the binary is false. There is no useless pain unless you decide to make it useless. The decision and task is how to take useless pain and make it useful.

The concept of therapy is entirely based on that choice. Sharing your stories of pain is a start to healing oneself. Finding empathy among those who have lived through pain similar to your own creates a sense of community and rejects the idea that your pain is somehow unique. Whether it is the sharing of it one on one with someone you paid to listen or getting up on a stage and spinning it in front of a crowd of strangers, this is cleansing and empowering but it is only the first step. A means to an end.


Ramsay frequently notices that those failing restauranteurs are stuck in the process of sharing their grief, over and over, mostly to themselves. They are in a loop of telling and retelling their story of pain and a vain attempt at finding the driver who crippled them. They blame the public, Yelp reviewers, their staff, the economy, anything they can to deflect away from the hard work of rehab on themselves.

He challenges these self pitying and delusional owners to recognize the rut and pull themselves out of it. He barks at them to move on to the second step of turning useless pain into pain that builds and transforms into useful: getting the fuck over it.

Grow up. Grow a pair. Muscle through. Process your loss and rebuild. Step up. Move on. Get real. Whatever phrase you embrace, it always means the same thing: to endure a loss or a trauma, you have to commit to enduring it rather than reliving it. You have to cease the rush of self righteous whining and blame and get into the rehab room and do the work.

That guy who lost his legs in a war zone and now plays basketball on the weekends? He didn’t get from one (loss of legs) to the other (basketball) by sitting around complaining about the war or how hard it is to be him or seeking out any ear to listen to his talk of woe. He went from pain that is useless and made it useful. He muscled through it and came out better than he was before.

That woman who was raped multiple times and mutilated by Islamist extremist in her own country now presenting TED talks and influencing international politics? She didn’t get there by stewing in her pain.

The man who was fatshamed as a kid who went into the gym and busted his ass every day until he lost 150 pounds didn’t get there by crying about being fatshamed.

It is an absolute guarantee that to live in the world is to suffer pain. You simply cannot avoid it in any way. What you decide to do with both the knowledge of the existence and inevitability of pain and the existence of your own specific pain is entirely up to you. Choose to suffer or choose to become stronger from it.

The incomplete axiom is “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” To complete the equation, you must add “…if we choose strength over suffering.”

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