To The Pain

Yesterday my friend Kate Paulk talked to me about a discussion in a newsgroup about whether or not pain was needed to be able to create. She writes about it here:

At first I thought we were talking about the old romantic chestnut that you have to be a “haunted being” or live in a garret to write. Turned out no. The discussion centered on brave new world and whether one could medicate the “pain” of being human and still create.

Guys… I studied psychology. (It’s a long time ago, and I was much younger, and besides that wench is as good as dead.) I remember from adolescent psychology that what brings about growth is coming to a crisis point, which then causes one “evolve” into a higher plane.

There have always been two views of Man, and pedagogical philosophy seems to lurch between the two like a drunkard on an uneven street hitting first one wall and then the other.

There is the camp that believes humans are born angels and then society corrupts them. And then the second one believes humans are born evil and you have to beat them into being human.

Need I tell you that not only are both of them wrong, they both produce untold amounts of suffering? The first one, perhaps most propagated by Jean Jacques Rosseau (and Doctor Spock!) has spread suffering around wondrously for the last forty years, by giving us a few generations of “no frustration children” who were taught the world revolved around their belly buttons.

The second one gives us neurotic people, often very high achieving, but also very often self-doubting and suffering.

Of course most parents never bother with either camp, and just love their kid and try to keep the kid in a modicum of good social behavior. In fact, I’d blame a lot of problems with education on “how to raise your child” books, since kids are distinctly individual and tend not to respond to “unified theories of child raising.” Just with my two – one of them needed to be restrained from doing the world’s craziest things and the other has to be continuously encouraged to have faith in himself. I suspect there are all sorts of variations in between. The first thought time outs were for sissies. The younger one would actually stay in time out. Etc. Mostly I used books on how to raise kids as kindling for which I’m glad to report they’re excellent. However, a lot of parents turned to these books in the last two decades and I see the results every day. I prefer the kids whose parents just took them as they were and tried to make them into adults that would be able to function.

BUT whichever method of education you use, there seems to be only one way for humans to grow. I honestly have no idea if humans will get potty trained if you never convince them to. I have heard horror stories of nine year olds in adult diapers, because the parents refused to “pressure” them, but those might be urban legends. I know one of my sons refused to be potty trained until I pointed out no potty training, no third birthday party, and then he was perfectly potty trained within a week.

The point is that even if you assume kids won’t be potty trained till forced to, the time will come when their classmates or, heaven forbid, co-workers will make fun of them and taunt them – i.e. inflict pain – until they are. It is pretty much the same with every other thing humans need to learn to be civilized. If your parents don’t do you the favor of housebreaking you (and I don’t mean just literally) then society will do it for you.

You see, humans are not born as angels or demons. They’re born as… Animals. This is a function of having a body and sharing the basic functions of life and the basic appetites of life with other animals (certainly with other mammals.) To live in a civilization, be it Western or the furthest, deepest, most isolated hunter-gathering tribe in the depths of the rain forest, that animal nature needs to be “tamed.” The extent to which it is tamed and the way the taming manifests itself will depend on the physical environment and the social rules of the group the human is growing up in.

To put this in other terms, this is like every kitten is born a kitten. To live with humans, they have to be socialized. Some basic rules will apply wherever that kitten will live – no biting. No scratching your human. Now, whether the cat shares the sleeping mat of a tribesman in deepest, greenest rain forest or the studio apartment of an editor in NYC dictates other rules: don’t pee on the carpet, vs pee everywhere but on the human. Or don’t stray off to hunt mice in the undergrowth vs. any mouse that comes into the apartment is yours. Or…

But one thing is the same, kitten or human. The animal will continue doing what comes naturally unless it becomes unpleasant. Changing your behavior is TROUBLE. Unless there’s greater trouble in not changing it, you just won’t. This is part of the animal nature. Part of having a body. This applies whether you’re a human, a cat, a dog or a three-toed sloth.

This means that in the broad sense, that you have to be thwarted – either by your parents, or more cruelly, later, by society – to change enough to live and be happy – let alone creative – in society, because in society, by definition, you’re not always going to get your way. (And those who think this is an evil side effect of civilization are invited to read about primate organization or watch a mother cat discipline her kittens.) And you need to know how to deal with that. In fact, you need to preemptively learn to restrain your impulses/behavior so that others can live around you.

Now, most of the things you have to learn are stuff like… don’t eat from other people’s plates. Of course, the correctives, physical or not are not going to be very severe on this, right? You don’t think of the burning heartache of not eating from other people’s plates. (At least I hope not.)

But sooner or later, on your way to being an adult you’re going to be thwarted in a major way – unable to get something you really want – either someone’s love, or entrance to a school or the grade you wanted or even the job you wanted. And then you’re going to have to change your goal and learn and grow. This is usually the type of suffering that leaves scars. And the scar makes you better. To those I would add the pain of not being as you want to be. For instance, I learned early that I am almost bizarrely uncoordinated (not unusual for children born very premature) which meant while I loved sports sports don’t love me.

I don’t know any human who reaches adulthood without pain. The Princess Bride quote applies here: Life IS pain, Highness. Anyone who tells you different is trying to sell you something.

Now, it is possible to raise a child with minimal pain. You potty train them and such, but you never, ever, ever let them suffer disappointment or failure.

Apparently a lot of parents have attempted this led, of course, by their love for their children, because we are hearing about people who go to pieces the first time they fail at something, in their late twenties and thirties.

Again, this is another of those things where you have to cruel to be kind. You have to let your children experience little failures and little pains, so they may learn to experience the inevitable big ones. (And yeah, I understand the desire to protect them. How many times, holding my kid who was crying because a toy broke, I thought “let this be your worst grief”?) Because pain is unavoidable. See above LIFE IS PAIN. No one lives in a permanent state of bliss. Nor would it be desirable.

So, let’s suppose people are drugged into being happy all the time, regardless of what happens? (This seems to be the goal of some of our medical professionals that I’ve encountered. Or rather, they think we should be neither happy nor unhappy but “even” – never, I think, having met a bipolar person and therefore assuming it’s the normal fluctuations that are a “disease.” Who knows?)

Well, then people are drugged all the time. Depending on what you use, they might still be experiencing pain just not aware of it. You might even erase the memory of the little pains of becoming “tamed”. Would people like this, who have, in their memory experienced only bliss be able to create great art?

Honeys, I don’t think they’d be able to get up off the sofa or hold a coherent conversation – they’d be missing one of the basic experiences of being human. I don’t know what they’d be. Perhaps very messy house plants? But human where in counts – internally – never.

For a writer, particularly, whose tool boxes are emotions, the more emotions you use and learn how to apply, the better. I think if you’ve never been happy, you’ll not be a wonderful writer, either.

As in drawing you first lay down the darkest tints and the brightest ones, then fill in the middles in relation to those —  you need to know real pain and real happiness before your work can hit all the mid tints.

If you avoid pain, you avoid life.

2 thoughts on “To The Pain

  1. The most valuable book on raising children I ever read wasn’t actually about raising children at all. It was a history of child-rearing theories. (I’m afraid I don’t remember the title and my Google search didn’t turn up any that looked like the right one.)

    It was great: Diane and I inoculated ourselves against “by the book” parenting. We read all about the shifts in dogma every generation or so. Consequently we felt free to do what works. Every pair of expectant parents should bone up on the history of parent advice.

    1. Good idea. I just had horse sense to go by and played it by ear a lot. In the case of the younger one it was particularly challenging because he had sensory issues (which seem to be going away as he grows up) and is two standard deviations above the rest of the family IQ wise. The combination almost killed me, but at 16 he’s a nice kid, pleasing to have around and fairly functional, so we must be doing something right…

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