The rantings of a beautiful mind

On life, society, and computer technology.

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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

I live in the Fortress of Solitude. I drive the Silver Beast. My obsession is justice. I used to be a Windows software developer. I retired in 2000 when my stock options helped me achieve financial security.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Feeling No Pain, Feeling No Joy

I’ve been reading Harold Kushner’s “When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough – The Search for a Life that Matters.” He’s the author of the bestseller, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.”

This morning I arrived at a very significant chapter, “Feeling No Pain, Feeling No Joy.” Rabbi Kushner writes, “When I protect myself against the danger of loss (by death, divorce, or just having a close friend move away) by teaching myself not to care, not to let anyone get too close to me, I lose part of my soul. To be alive is to feel pain, and to hide from pain is to make yourself less alive.”

He further writes, “Adults hurt, but for the most part they survive intact. If forty percent of marriages end in divorce, eighty percent of divorces end in remarriage, often very stable and satisfying remarriages. And even when both parties may not remarry, they often experience a degree of personal growth, once the hurting is over.

But young children are often more vulnerable, less able to take charge of their own lives and put things back together. Some of the effects of divorce on children are all too familiar to us: the sense of rejection, the guilt that they may have caused the split, the absence of a role model. But from what I have seen, the most damaging effect of divorce on children, and even on their friends who have not experienced a divorce personally but have heard so much about it, goes beyond these. I am afraid that we may be raising a generation of young people who will grow up afraid to love, afraid to give themselves completely to another person, because they will have seen how much it hurts to take the risk of loving and have it not work out. I am afraid that they will grow up looking for intimacy without risk, for pleasure without significant emotional investment. They will be so fearful of the pain of disappointment that they will forgo the possibilities of love and joy.

Gee, that pretty much describes me!

“If we believe that in order for life to be good, we have to avoid pain, the danger is that we will become so good at not feeling pain that we will learn not to feel anything – not joy, not love, not hope, not awe. We will become emotionally anesthetized. We will learn to live out whole lives within a narrow emotional range, accepting the fact that there will be few high spots in our lives in exchange for the guarantee that there will be no low moments either, no pain or sadness, just a perpetual feeling of monotony, one gray day after another. Because of our fear of pain, we will have mastered the art of detachment so well that nothing will be able to reach us emotionally.”

Well, Kushner overstates this. My days aren’t so gray. I am generally a pretty happy fellow now. Maybe my life is somewhat monotonous, but that’s what I’ve always tried to achieve: a life of peace and tranquility.

“Because of our fear of being hurt or being disappointed, we have chosen a life of emotional flatness. We have built for ourselves an emotional floor below which we will not sink, to make sure that nothing ever hurts or depresses us, and an emotional ceiling beyond which we cannot rise, because then the risk of falling would be too great, and we wonder why we feel hemmed in. We inject ourselves with spiritual novocaine so that we can walk through the storms of life and never be hurt, and we wonder why we feel so numb.”

Now Kushner is just getting melodramatic! My life isn’t that bad.

Kushner is so willing to open himself up to the possibility of pain and suffering in exchange for the possibility of joy and ecstacy. Let’s see if the equation still holds should he let me torture him. I can cause him such pain and agony that he will literally beg me to slaughter his children and rape and murder his wife in order to stop his hell on earth. And THEN let’s hear him say that pain is a necessary requisite of life.

Needless to say, I disagree completely with Harold Kushner. No amount of cognitive therapy, no degree of rationalization nor debate will ever persuade me that I must open myself up to the possibility of pain in my life. You cannot avoid pain, but you don’t have to willingly invite it into your life. Pain is something to stave off, to fight valiantly against. If the price of this action is to lose a part of my soul, then I shall gladly pay it. And if the consequence of this action is that I live a life of calm and peace and evenness, then I shall be very happy indeed...


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