The Power of Pain

I have been thinking about pain a lot lately. Physical, mental and emotional pain, I’ve felt them all – but then, who hasn’t. Welcome to the human race, I hear pain say.

In particular this week, I’ve been thinking about pain in terms of the Pain to Poetry/Anguish to Art writing workshops I am running as part of The Magnetic Diaries ACE-funded tour. But I’ve also been thinking more widely – about pain and purpose, about pain as both universal yet also very personal.

I should probably caveat my thoughts first by saying that there is no medical basis, they are simply my thoughts – some drawn from personal experience, others from watching and trying to help people in pain.

Long-term pain, of any sort, is energy-draining and can make people close down/narrow the world and become more self-centred. This partly because of the energy pain takes and sometimes also the importance that escaping pain at all cost can take on. It may seem like I’m stating the obvious, as also with noting that the levels at which pain strike are very personal. Women’s stories of labour are a prime example for me of how different the same/similar experience can be felt by different people.

So, if these are obvious, why state them? For me, remembering that we all have different pain thresholds, different pain triggers even, is important because it highlights the value of compassion, understanding and open-mindedness. What is a blip to one person may seem the end of the world to another. This is okay, it is part of what makes us wonderfully human, and part of what makes us beautifully individual within our shared humanity.

Using Pain

But, back to the power of pain or, more importantly, its purpose. Physical, mental or emotional pain is a signal. It tells us there is something wrong, something that needs attention, something that needs to change. This is as true of emotional and mental pain as it is of physical pain caused by burns, broken bones or blisters. The cause may be less obvious, but the pain is still there to wake us up, make us pay attention, jolt us into finding the problem so that we can fix it. In other words, it can make us take action where we might otherwise fail to do so.

Now, I’m not a masochist or a sadist, I don’t search out pain and I wouldn’t ascribe to any thwarted genius school of writing that might glorify pain as an essential means of attaining anything. I don’t believe suffering is necessary to achieve great art and would happily dispense with pain altogether wherever possible. (And, of course, some types of pain – such as long-term physical conditions, grief or loss – have sadly unchangeable causes.) But I do believe that where pain is unavoidable, it might as well be used, the silver lining found within the grey coating. Some of the most painful things in my life have ultimately turned out to bring important insights and changes – not by wallowing in the pain, but by listening to it, then acting on it to make life better.

Brene Brown has some great TED talks that not just touch on pain, but also vulnerability (it is not weakness but courage and “the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change”), shame, the danger of bandaging over pain without finding the root cause (trying to avoid pain can cause more harm long-term)… She puts all these aspects better and more entertainingly than I can. (Maybe try her talk on vulnerability or shame for starters.)

We all feel pain, and most of us probably also cause our fair share, though hopefully unwittingly. Truth is pain is not something for guilt or shame, it happens, use it, learn from it, grow from it.

And if you think writing might be a way of using pain for a purpose, then please do look out for my Pain to Poetry or Anguish to Art writing workshops or check Lapidus for other writing facilitators in your area.