It’s taken me a long time to challenge my assumption that experiencing pain is a valuable and good thing. To some that may sound crazy but I think there’s a lot of people out there who assume, as I have, that fully engaging with the world means not escaping from the negative parts. And maybe it’s part of the American psyche to think that suffering makes us tougher, stronger, and better.
One of my favorite movies is one called My Dinner With Andre. It’s a very simple premise of actor/writer Wallace Shawn (who you may know from The Princess Bride) having dinner with his friend director Andre Gregory. The two men have very different approaches to philosophical issues and it’s fascinating to see them discuss life and meaning. I am more like Gregory, pursuing the mystical and hunting for truth and meaning, sometimes perhaps going a bit overboard. Shawn is more practical and grounded.
One part that has always really stood out to me is when they start talking about electric blankets. Gregory bemoans that people are losing touch with reality, shielding themselves from experiencing the world. Using electric blankets so they don’t feel the cold. And Shawn basically says, “Yeah, but New York is really cold. I want to be comfortable. What’s wrong with that?”What is wrong with that? Is it better to take advantage of the comforts of modern life to feel good as much as we can or to force ourselves to experience the world more directly?
I’ve always thought we needed the suffering and the discomfort but now I wonder where do I even draw the line? Do I not use the air conditioner because I should experience the heat? Do I stop living in a house because it removes me from the reality of nature? It can get absurd fast.
I was thinking about this issue again recently because of my birth experience. I thought that it was important not to use drugs and to experience labor naturally. Before I had done it I wanted to experience it fully. But half way through, in more pain than I ever imagined was possible, I wondered why I had turned my nose up at the gifts that modern medicine has to offer. Why did I insist on going through that horrible pain when pain relievers are actually available?
Was it better for me to fully experience the pain or was I being needlessly stubborn and suffering when I didn’t have to?