Mental pain and emotional anguish are universal elements of the human condition. The fact that repeated studies have shown depression and suicide rates to be higher in the affluent western world than in third world countries demonstrates that relative material comfort is no insulation from psychological suffering. Financial burdens, family relationships, work and school pressures, and a host of other stressors we are all familiar with can very easily send us into an emotional tail-spin. On top of this, there is the constant stream of bad news and manipulative commercialism that pours forth from our radios and televisions each day.
A remedy that many of us have tried from time to time is to turn to substances such as alcohol and various types of drugs. At best, though, this approach serves only to mask the pain that we are suffering, in the short-term, and very often the long-term results are toxic and destructive to ourselves and those we are closest to.
Other things we use to find temporary relief from our anguish include numbing diversions, such as television and the Internet. We may not think of these things as being in the same category as alcohol and drugs, but ultimately they are not much better for our long-term psychological well-being. Once again, they serve simply to provide a momentary distraction. As soon as we put them aside, the tension and feelings of unease descend upon us once again.
Another form of pain-numbing addiction, but one that is never considered as such, is our attachment to negative emotions whenever we find ourselves in stressful situations. I’m talking about emotions such as anger and bitterness that tend to raise their ugly heads whenever we find ourselves facing challenges we don’t feel equipped to handle. Although an immediate sense of anger can be a powerful and positive force for reacting to injustice and extreme situations, it loses its effectiveness very quickly and becomes merely bitterness, a worthless and destructive emotion. Bitterness is, however, a very addictive emotion; one that allows us to maintain the myth that others, or the general conditions of the universe, are to blame for our perceived ill fortune. It allows us to evade responsibility for our own fate. In that sense, it acts just like any other soothing but destructive narcotic. It gives us a feeling of temporary relief and satisfaction, while simultaneously eroding our free will. It is only by taking full responsibility for whatever befalls us — living life with our eyes wide open — that we can truly live our own lives.
Perhaps our desperate attempt to avoid psychological pain has something to do with a fundamental misunderstanding about what being alive really means. After all, isn’t pain just a part of all existence? It is one of the vibrant threads that make up the magnificent tapestry of our lives. The feelings we experience when relationships fall apart, loved ones die, we fail at a task or look foolish in front of others, are all there for a reason. They are there to teach us things such as patience, endurance, understanding, compassion, and love — all the things that we need in order to live fulfilled and well-rounded lives. Feeling these emotions is what keeps us aware of the fact that we are, in fact, alive.
As Sydney Harris once said:
“When I hear somebody sigh, ‘Life is hard,’ I am always tempted to ask, ‘Compared to what?'”