A few weeks ago, one of my clients was asking me about a friend of hers, who was struggling. She wanted to know what she could do alleviate her friend’s suffering (and essentially, her own discomfort at seeing her friend in pain). Now, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to help people. I’ve written quite a bit about how to go about doing that (and how not to). If you’d like to read more about helping others the right way, check out these posts:
- Helping Those Who Don’t Want To Be Helped
- How Can I Help My Depressed and Struggling Friend?
- Why Having Empathy is the Last Way to Help Someone
But today’s post isn’t about helping others. It’s about the false, underlying assumption my client’s question was based on: that her friend’s pain meant that something had gone terribly wrong and that someone needed to step in and fix it. Pain isn’t a sign that something has gone wrong. Things don’t go “wrong” in this Universe. There is no WRONG or RIGHT, there is only WANTED and UNWANTED, that stuff we personally like and want more of, and that stuff we personally don’t like and want less of.
When someone is in pain, it simply means that they’re being stubborn; they’re holding on to a belief or perspective that isn’t serving them, even though it’s causing them pain. Now, why in the hell would anyone do that?
“Pain is good…” Duuuuuuh.
People don’t stubbornly hold on to their suffering because they’re stupid or masochistic by nature. People hold on to their pain because they believe that doing so will either 1.) lead to them getting something they want, and/or 2.) help them avoid something they don’t want. And when this belief is strong enough, logic, reason and even physical evidence to the contrary won’t easily get someone to give up their self-torture. The bad news is that most of us have been taught from a very early age that pain is good and valuable in some way. The “No pain no gain” paradigm is a wide spread and pervasive one. And, of course, there does seem to be some merit to it. It does work, to a degree. If you force yourself to go to the gym and work out like a demon, you may well end up losing weight and building some muscle. I say “may well” because it doesn’t always happen that way. People often fail to produce the desired results no matter how much they suffer. But don’t worry, there will be some helpful person around who will remind them that the reason they failed was because they were too weak, too wussy, and/or simply hadn’t suffered enough yet.
The strong shall survive, and what better way to prove how strong you are than by showing everyone how much pain you can endure. If you achieved something through loads of struggle, you can wear it like a badge of honor. After all, the goal is to achieve as much as possible, not to feel good or, *gasp*, be happy. So, go on, work your fingers to the bone, literally, and embrace the pain. It’s virtuous and valuable and will lead to you getting everything you’ve ever wanted. And if you don’t succeed this way, it’s your own damn fault. I mean, it couldn’t possibly be because the whole paradigm is wrong…
The boulder rollers
Only, it is. Wrong, that is. Sure, you can roll a boulder up a hill with your own body, loads of effort and sweat, and cursing and probably more than a few tears. And when you get to the top, you can feel all proud of yourself. Or, you can use a freaking crane, push a little lever thingy and have it hoist the boulder to the top of the hill, while you use your other hand to drink a cocktail. Is the boulder that was manually rolled up the hill somehow “better” than the one that was hoisted by crane? Is it somehow more valuable to go the long, slow, incredibly hard route? Or is it just, and let me perfectly blunt here, stupider than pushing on a door marked “PULL”? Unless you actually enjoy boulder rolling, why would you choose the manual method? Why would you choose suffering?
Because someone convinced you that rolling boulders manually is better. Oh, and also, someone forgot to tell you that the crane exists. Oopsy! Wait, that’s not entirely accurate. Someone told you that there will be those who will try and tell you about these supposed “cranes”, but they’re just trying to get you to be lazy, and distract you from your boulder rolling with crazy stories of an easy, joyful, puppy hug filled life, so don’t you listen to them! In fact, if you do meet some of these heretics, maybe chuck a boulder or two at them. They’ll get the message and then you can go back to sweating and cursing. Oh wait, cursing’s not allowed either.
Like monkeys observing a space station
Before you go off on some conspiracy theory, I really don’t think that these beliefs were orchestrated by some sinister organization. I believe that people simply observed that hard work seemed to bring results, and assumed that this was the way to go. And, as people with a limited perspective are wont to do (which is pretty much everyone, unless you consciously and deliberately choose not to apply your perspective to others), they assumed that this was the only and BEST way to go. Any observations that didn’t match these conclusions were dismissed and deemed immoral, and in some cases even outlawed.
But is using the crane really lazy? Or is it just smarter? Is it just a sign of advancement and evolution and leverage (quite literally… yeah, my metaphors are THAT good, people)? I think that we (those on this blog) can all agree that using the crane is the preferable way to go. But, is it wrong to keep on going with the manual method? And why doesn’t everyone just use cranes these days?
Fear and Desire – a potent combination
As I’ve explained, we’ve been conditioned to not only believe that the manual method is necessary and the best way to go, but to be suspicious of any alternatives that promise to be easier. After all, you don’t get something for nothing, idle hands are the devil’s playground, and pain is just weakness, leaving the body. In case it wasn’t obvious, that last sentence should be read in the most sarcastic of tones, possible (Could someone please invent a Sarcasm Font, already?).
When someone REALLY wants something, when they’re desperate for it, their fear of NOT getting that something is pretty big. And when you combine huge desire for something with a massive fear of not getting it, the afflicted tend to hold very, very tightly to the only way they’ve ever known to accomplish anything. It’s like they’re so busy concentrating on rolling that boulder, and so afraid to stop concentrating on it (because they think the second they do, the boulder will just roll back downhill), that they can’t spare even a second to look up and see that there’s a big old crane there that can make their lives WAY easier. And so, they stubbornly hold to their point of view, no matter how convincingly you may argue for the crane. When someone really, really wants to get that boulder up that hill, they’re not going to be willing to take that risk.
Nothing has gone wrong
While many of us would like to run around, smacking boulder rolling folks on the back of their heads, yelling “Look! Cranes!”, we’ve already established that this won’t work. If they’re too determined to get their boulder up the hill, they’re not going to be willing to take the risk of listening to you for even a second. But here’s the good news: Nothing has gone wrong. The boulder rollers are not destined to keep rolling boulders manually for the rest of their existence. There’s a bigger process at work here, one that ensures that boulder rolling folks get the message sooner or later. You see, rolling boulders is hard work. Really, REALLY hard work. It’s painful. And the longer you do it, the more tired you get, the harder you have to work and the more it hurts. And everyone, EVERYONE, reaches a point, what I like to call the “Breaking Point”, at which they give up, let go of the boulder, look up at the sky and yell “This is too hard! I can’t do this anymore!” And when they do, when they’re done yelling and they open their eyes, what will they see but a gorgeous, ginormous, glorious crane. And cocktails with little umbrellas in them. And maybe a steel drum band.
We all have a breaking point. It essentially describes just how much pain and suffering each of us is willing to put up with before we give up the struggle and open ourselves up to alternative ways of getting what we want. In that moment, we decide that nothing, not even our desire, is worth the amount of pain we’re currently experiencing, and so we give up. Some people will try to give up the desire altogether, which never goes well. They’re basically walking back down the hill, sitting at the bottom and waiting for the boulder they were rolling to come crashing down upon them and smoosh them. Giving up on a desire is even more painful than trying to manually make it happen. Again, it’s a failsafe in the process, designed to alert us to the fact that we’re not moving towards what we want. We were never meant to be in a ton of pain, but then, we were never really meant to decide that pain was good.
Eventually, we all reach our breaking point. Unfortunately, for many of us, it takes a lot of pain to get us to give up. It takes a lot to “break” us, something we’re taught to be very, very proud of. And when we do, the clarity always comes. I call this the Cattle Prod Method of growth. It’s like we come to a fork in the road. One way feels good and easy, the other feels hard and painful. Both lead to what we want. Many of us have been so conditioned to take the hard road, that we don’t even see the easy road. But even if we do, we tend to choose the “virtuous” road, we’ve been taught will definitely get us to where we want to go. It actually feels like the “safer” choice to us. So, we start walking down the hard road, and as we do, it gets more and more painful. Eventually, it gets so painful that it’s like someone hits us with a cattle prod. We get a jolt, decide to “Screw this!”, and we run, run, run all the way back and we take the easy road. Until… we come to another fork in the road. I’d like to stress that this DOES work, to a degree. It’s just the most difficult and ineffective way to go about getting what we want.
The easy way
The easy, much more enjoyable way is to recognize that the easy road exists, even if you can’t currently see it, and look for it (or, more accurately, feel for it). We can choose to take the easy road right away, without first going down the hard road. Of course, we don’t have to, and no real harm is done by going about it the hard way, but the easy, good feeling way is always there. But what does the easy road look like in real world terms? Well, it’s the option that feels better, it’s the choice that feels like relief, it’s the best feeling thought you have access to. Let me give you an example.
Bob is poor and wants to be rich. He has bills piling up, kids to feed, rent to pay, and just found out he may be getting laid off. Bob is afraid and he has loads of reasons to be. Now, Bob’s been taught that the only way to earn a lot of money is to work really, really hard, and he’s been doing just that all his life. But for some reason, no matter how hard Bob works, he can’t seem to get ahead. In fact, he sees a lot of other people who don’t work nearly as hard as he does, earning a lot more money than he’s ever made. What gives? But Bob doesn’t know any other way. He only knows to work harder, and so, even though he’s already experiencing physical problems brought on by stress, he looks for yet another job to add to the two he’s already got. Even though a part of him knows that this isn’t sustainable and even though he has tons of evidence that suggests that his “work harder = earn more” paradigm isn’t working, he sees no other options. He doesn’t see the easy road. Eventually, Bob’s Cattle Prod moment will arrive. He might get too physically ill to continue, he might get laid off, his kid might get sick, etc. Something will manifest that will finally break Bob, causing him to give up all he knows and finally open himself up to an alternative point of view. His level of pain will become too great, and he’ll give up his struggle. It’s at that moment that he’ll fully realize that hard work isn’t the answer, and he’ll begin to look for other options.
Or, Bob could decide to “give up” sooner and deliberately go the easy route. He could begin by acknowledging that his current method clearly isn’t working and that another way must exist, even if he doesn’t yet know what it looks like. He could accept that his inner world dictates his outer world, and begin to imagine what it would feel like to work just one job and make plenty of money. Perhaps he could indulge in the fantasy of working a job he actually loves and is passionate about, coming home at the end of the day energized, excited and happy, and having time and stamina left over to spend with his kids. He could see himself as smiling, relaxed, and doing things he really likes to do. This will feel very, very risky to Bob. He’ll have to let the boulder go to some extent. He doesn’t have to quit his jobs immediately, mind you, but he will have to make the time to visualize, to daydream and suspend enough belief to feel that these scenarios are at least possible. Bob has to be willing to try another way, even if just in his mind. When he does, no matter when that moment comes (the easy or the hard way), Bob will discover that life can be a hell of a lot easier than he thought it could be.
The process is always at work
The main point I’m trying to make here is that the underlying process, the one that pulls us towards what we want, is always at work. We never have to worry that we’ll be left on our own. The feedback (“You’re getting warmer! Now you’re getting colder!”) is always coming our way, if we’re willing to hear it. And if we’re not, don’t worry, it will just get bigger and louder and more painful until it finally gets our attention. We are supposed to get what we want. So much so, that when we don’t, it creates massive amounts of pain.
When you see someone in pain, recognize that they are moving towards their own Cattle Prod moment. They’ll eventually get so sick of rolling that heavy boulder up a hill that they’ll give it up. But, thanks to great conditioning, they may have to reach a point of immense pain before they’re willing to do that. And even though your desire to help may be great, you don’t get to take away or delay their Cattle Prod moment, which is essentially what you’ll be doing if you step in and try and ease their pain without allowing them to shift their beliefs. It’s a bit like handing a drug addict some money so he can get another fix. It might ease his pain today, but ultimately, nothing will have changed. Keep in mind that I’m not talking about being inspired to help, which will never delay someone’s Cattle Prod moment, and could actually make it unnecessary. When you’re inspired to help, you are working WITH the process, instead of trying to arrogantly interfere with it.
You can set an intention to help, and if you’re inspired to do so, by all means, step in. But if there’s no inspiration to get involved, understand that for many people, it just takes a great deal of suffering to get them to drop their boulder, but that for them, it’s the ONLY way they’ll ever see the crane. You have to decide what’s ultimately more important – that you temporarily ease someone’s suffering, or that they permanently gain the ability to see and believe in and use cranes.