Does Pain Make Us Better Humans?

I’ve read about the benefits of pain before. Though this was mostly back in my former life. Back when I embraced the messed-up theological idea that God intentionally infuses bad things into our lives in order to humble us for our own good, so that we can see how his ways are better and higher than our ways. The point of pain, so we believed, was for God to break down our arrogance and independence. It also helped us “enter into the sufferings of Christ,” more fully molding us into the image of Christ. Per our destiny.

I’ll be honest. Since my deconversion, I’ve not found it easy to embrace the idea that pain helps us grow to become better humans.

I don’t necessarily deny that it does. The science seems to be there.

But it still feels just a little fucked up to me.

Morning Reading on How Pain Can Make Us Better Humans

I want to share with you something I read this morning. As you know, I’ve been slowly digesting Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life. I like it because it’s motivational and, believe it or not, I’m not always feeling all that motivated. I like it because it’s practical and yet fun and upbeat, and I need something fun and practical and upbeat to pepper across my more robust reading. I like it because Mark’s writing is kind of irreverent and because he shares my affection for the word fuck.

This is what Mark told me this morning.

Mark was talking about psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski‘s work in the mid-twentieth century studying the survivors of war and tragedy in his native Poland. The scores of hundreds of rapes and murders and mass starvation that Poland had suffered at the hands of first the Nazis and then the Soviets is horrifying. Mark was telling me about how Dabrowski wanted a closer look into the psychological aftermath.

Mark says this about Dabrowski’s study:

“He found something both surprising and amazing. A sizable percentage of them believed that the wartime experiences they’d suffered, although painful and indeed dramatic, had actually caused them to become better, more responsible, and yes, even happier people. Many described their lives before the war as if they’d been different people then: ungrateful for and unappreciative of their loved ones, lazy and consumed by petty problems, entitled to all they’d been given. After the war they felt more confident, more sure of themselves, more grateful, and unfazed by life’s trivialities and petty annoyances.”

Mark is careful to clarify that none of them were glad that the atrocities had taken place. But maybe we could step outside Mark’s words to say it seems they were grateful for some of the positive results that had arisen in response to their survival.

“Fear and anxiety and sadness are not necessarily always undesirable or unhelpful states of mind; rather, they are often representative of the necessary pain of psychological growth. And to deny that pain is to deny our own potential.”

Here’s where Mark kind of starts to take it home in the context of his chapter.

“Just as one must suffer physical pain to build stronger bone and muscle, one must suffer emotional pain to develop greater emotional resilience, a stronger sense of self, increased compassion, and a generally happier life.”

And here’s where I want to take it home.

It’s pretty simple really. I’m simply inviting you into a dialogue with yourself, a dialogue that you may at some point want to invite others to share with you.

First, Consider Your Pain

We’ve all gone through some shit. For some of us, it’s been more serious than for others, that’s for sure. But we don’t need to minimize anyone’s pain. All of it is real.

So ask yourself about what you’ve gone through. List it out. Itemize it. Think on it and take it in. What it looked like, sounded like, tasted like. And most importantly, what it felt like. How long ago was it and to what degree does it continue to sit within your secular soul.

We’re not just talking about the-one-big-thing-that-happened. We’re talking about all pain from all directions that continues to sit with you, bother you, and bring you… pain.

Second, Consider Its Effects

Now take that pain and consider how it has affected your current self. How are you different? How has it slightly-shifted or completely-transformed your emotions? How has it made you more cautious or anxious or angry or resilient or ambitious or independent? You fill in the blanks. You go where the pain has brought you. Just be real, be honest, be raw.

You don’t need to pretend these effects have to be certain thing. You don’t have to find something positive. You also don’t need to find something negative. You just need to be real and honest and as raw as is truthful. This is the you as you currently are.

Third, Consider Your Humanist Self

What I’m wondering this morning-turned-afternoon is how we might capture our pain and harness its power to shape us into better humans. In other words, more humanist humans. Not sure what that means? Look here. All I’m wondering today is whether or not the “greater emotional resilience, a stronger sense of self, increased compassion, and a generally happier life” that this morning Mark told me can crawl out of our pain can also carry us toward a greater embodiment of our humanist ideals. Not just as a global community, but as individuals, as you and I try to be the better-kinds-of-humans-in-the-most-practical-everyday-ways that we want to be.

I’d love to provide a bunch of examples on this. But you already know what they are. You see them everyday in your head.

So in Sum

So in sum, we already know we want to be better humans. That’s why we’re here on this blog. And we already know we’re dealing with at least a little bit of post-faith bullshit and probably at least a mild sense of religious trauma. That’s also maybe why we’re here on this blog.

Now we just need to take some time to think about how we can capture today’s pain and harness its power to make us better humans for the future. Which will also hopefully heal other people’s pain and keep it from spreading yet further to even more people.

Humanism’s important. Especially the kind that comes from you.

Keep healing. Keep loving. Keep on humanist’ing.


Yours to the end,