All About Pain: The Toughness Fallacy

I don’t know what the weather is like where you are, but it’s cold, rainy and windy here by me so I’ll use that as my excuse for being a Debbie Downer here. Cuz we’re going to talk about pain today. Then again, if you are the sort of person who only wants to read about unicorns making skittles droppings, you probably aren’t reading my blog. So just another day here in The Upside Down World.

It seems to me that when Christians talk about pain they talk about it either very existentially, “why does God allow suffering?”, or we talk about it very personally, “let me tell you my story about being in pain”. We start from the assumption that pain is a valid, important topic, but even our most sincere efforts to address pain from either an existential or personal perspective tend to fall short. When they do, we almost always turn to attempting to minimize or dismiss other people’s pain. And let’s not even talk about the nonsense that comes out of our mouths when we try to moralize about pain or the behavior of people in pain!

In order to do better, we need a better understanding of what pain is, how it works, why it matters. Which includes getting rid of several dangerous misconceptions about pain. Even people who are personally familiar with suffering tend to believe a lot of false, unhelpful things about pain. Nearly all of us internalize our culture’s prejudices, erroneous assumption and ignorance about suffering and when life goes south, these internalized ideas just make things worse.

Obviously, this is a subject which could be a book, but you’ll just have to make do with a few blog posts. And I’m not even going to put them in the right order, so nya!

Anyhow, I wanted to start today by addressing probably the most common misconception about pain. That is once you’ve been in serious pain, additional pain will not affect you as much. You will have gotten used to it.

So pervasive is this idea that many men were raised by parents who thought it was important to “toughen him up”, often with harsh punishment or unreasonable demands. Boys needed to be toughened up in order to better deal with the rigors of being a man. This parenting approach is not as well accepted as it once was which has lead many people to lament that men are no longer as manly as they once were. But as we will see, this approach to raising boys has fallen out of favor for good reasons.

Another example of how pervasive and dangerous this misconception about pain is would be the persistence of racism, believe it or not. For example, it has been found that health care workers, including minority workers, very consistently assume that African American patients are in less pain than white patients. Police often assume that rape or violent assault does not have as strong a psychological impact on minority victims as it does on white victims. People react more strongly on a physical level to images of white people in pain than of minorities in the same painful situations.

Researchers are pretty certain that this disparity in the perception of how much pain a person is experiencing is not the result of bigotry per se. Instead, what they are finding is that we start with the assumption that because minority people’s life experiences are often particularly difficult, that the minority person sitting in front of my has had a particularly difficult life. Which may or may not be true. We then layer on our cultural assumption is that the more past pain a person has endured, the tougher they are and the less pain they feel in their current situation. (This article from Slate provides a decent summary of the research into what is called the “racial empathy gap”. They tie it to the Trayvon Martin case, but the bulk of the article covers a good sampling of the research.)

Basically, our culture views pain tolerance as a muscle which gets stronger with use. However, researchers have known for a long time that this isn’t actually how it works. For example, post traumatic stress disorder has been a problem for as long as there has been war. Most people don’t realize this, but this was a biggest enough concern during WWII that the US government massively funded the training of mental health workers to deal with the mental health issues of returning soldiers.

During the Korean war and especially the Vietnam war, researchers were tasked with figuring out why some men experienced PTSD and others did not. The results of their research were precisely the opposite of what the public expected. It turned out that it generally wasn’t the privileged and “soft” recruits who got PTSD. Instead, having grown up in a “rough” environment was strongly correlated with developing PTSD. It was the young men who people assumed had been “toughened up” by their previous difficult experiences who were least able to cope with the challenges of war.

This dynamic has been demonstrated repeatedly in other research since that time. While anyone may struggle to cope with a traumatic event, those who have experienced previous trauma are often far less able to cope than those who have not. Which is a cruel irony. Those who we are most likely to view as able to cope with pain are often those who are most vulnerable to being destroyed by it.

Now, consider the implications of this when you read the news or even read about historical events. We struggle to extend appropriate empathy to our own neighbors who are not white because of this cultural misconception about pain. How much more is this the truth when we are looking at people from far away or even long ago?

When we read stories about slavery or war or sex trafficking or child brides or some other distant event, do we really understand the suffering involved? Or do we assume that those people, having already gone through so much, are more capable of dealing with the challenges they face than you or I would be?

Do we look at the exception, the rare person who pulled triumph from tragedy, and believe that all people are capable of doing the same if only they were good, strong or willing enough? Because if that’s what we think, we are lying to ourselves.

Tomorrow: Pain Tolerance and Torn Muscles, or why traumatized people are often not strong people.


3 thoughts on “All About Pain: The Toughness Fallacy

  1. There’s a qualitative difference between ‘bearable’ and ‘intolerable.’ There are certainly differences in how much damage more pain can cause. But pain is not quantitative. 2 pains plus 2 pains might equal 8 pains; they certainly don’t equal 4.

    And once you reach ‘intolerable’, it just goes on being ‘intolerable.’ Until you tolerate it or you die. None of this is good; but you don’t need to imagine it growing without limit. Not to say that we want to go to the limits we know… but we shouldn’t need to be afraid, either.

    We certainly should lessen that pain, where and when we can, for whomever — and I’d say that God also does that, but sees the constraints of the situation more accurately than we can.

    1. The problem is that the depth, duration and severity of the pain a person experiences can require more from a person than they are capable of. Often, we get to that point and grow to cover the gap. But just like with physical growth, our ability to grow varies wildly. (Did you know that there is more physical variation in size between humans than any other animal?) Sometimes we can’t learn and grow quickly enough.

      And while there may be an outer limit to the amount of pain a person can endure, who can say where that is? You listen to some people’s stories and it seems that pain and suffering are bottomless pits whose depths can never be fully known. By the time a person gets to the point of fearing that they can’t cope, they have repeatedly had the experience of being in more pain than they had ever thought possible. And they didn’t die. So it’s entirely possible that there are yet more levels of hell which they just haven’t reached.

      And all you have to do is look around to see what happens when people just can’t cope. The mental breaks, the abuse, the addictions, the wanton destruction of themselves and others. Pretty much every person you’ve ever seen, personally or in the news, engaged in destructive behavior, aimed at themselves or others, is someone whose ability to cope or grow simply couldn’t keep pace with what life threw at them.

      Where that line is varies wildly. It’s true that crossing the line into destruction doesn’t have to be permanent, but usually by the time you manage to learn how to cope with it all, your life will be in ruins. Pain, particularly pain from trauma, is at the very root of all that ails humanity.

      I was raised with the common cultural belief that we should be able to handle whatever life throws at you. Fall down 7 times, get up 8. Get kicked over 7 times, turn around and kick that person’s ass so there won’t be an 8th time. But it turns out I was wrong. I can keep picking myself back up, or at least have been able to so far, but based on my experience, I can in no way blame those who can’t. Anyone who knows me in real life will tell you that I am the strongest, most consistently positive, healthy and capable person they know. I mean, I’m raising kids and writing and keeping my house clean and cooking basically as a single mom. I’m no slouch. So please trust me when I say that I was wrong. We cannot handle everything life has to throw at us. And even if, through a long, arduous, painful process, we come out the other side better off, that still doesn’t make the process of going through them safe or bearable. It’s not a harmless process. When we fail to hold up under burdens we simply are not capable of bearing, we leave a wake of devestation which perpetuates the mess humanity’s in. It may be that there’s soemthing wonderful to be learned or gained through severe pain, but there are all sorts of wonderful thiings we manage to live without. It’s not worth the price.

Leave a Reply