Dealing with Pain Philosophically

Most, if not all of us, have gone through a traumatic experience or a period of sadness. It is part of life. However, many of us do not know how to deal with pain. While we all know that pain is something that we all go through and that we should expect it occasionally, many of us are easily swept away by emotional burdens when we are confronted by traumatic and painful experiences.

Yet, some of us have found effective ways of dealing with these experiences while others have not. Some of us seek assistance from professionals like psychologists, social work therapists or psychiatrists. Some seek emotional and spiritual support through religious or spiritual leaders.

Yet, some of us are prevented from seeking any emotional support or psychological encouragements because of cultural barriers that rationalize emotional vulnerability as a weakness of will. In this case, people would rather suffer in silence rather than subject themselves to emotional abuses by community members or risk being called “crazy.”

But for those of us who approach life with a more philosophical – täk-centered—perspective, a different approach is always available. But note that this approach is not appropriate for everyone. Philosophical approaches such as the one I use tend to approach life for what it is rather than what one wants it to be. In this case, what I try to change is not the problem but how the problem affects me. The problem will always come occasionally so I attempt to devise ways to deal with the problem instead of trying to change something I cannot change.

I therefore find the words of the 18th Century German Philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, personally helpful. In Studies in Pessimism, Schopenhauer argues that “life is a task to be done.” Approaching life as a “task” puts me in a frame of mind that enables me to approach life with a-solution-approach. I tell myself that “Good and bad things will always happen, so I have to prepare myself.” 

For Schopenhauer, “Unless suffering is the direct and immediate object of life, our existence must entirely fail of its aim. It is absurd to look upon the enormous amount of pain that abounds everywhere in the world, and originates in needs and necessities inseparable from life itself, as serving no purpose at all and the result of mere chance. Each separate misfortune, as it comes, seems, no doubt, to be something exceptional; but misfortune in general is the rule.”

Schopenhauer sees suffering everywhere because of our needs, our quest to be “happy”, so he wonders if suffering if the object of life or if suffering in the world serves nothing at all. If suffering is not the object of life and that we are meant to be happy, then life would only expose us to happiness not suffering. But if suffering is the object of life, then the suffering in life makes sense. If happiness is the object of life then why do evil, sadness and suffering seem to be the main procurements of life?

 As he puts it, “I know of no greater absurdity than that propounded by most systems of philosophy in declaring evil to be negative in its character. Evil is just what is positive; it makes its own existence felt.” What he means here is not “positive” as in good but “positive” as in presence, in being. Philosophers calls this ontology. So, the ontological status of evil is positive and the ontological status of good is negative. What you see around is evil. Think about this in terms of + and -.  Evil is positive because it is what is there in life, what we feel and what we experience constantly. Would you imagine yourself “happy” all the time? Absurd, right?

Schopenhauer goes ahead and said that “I have reminded the reader that every state of welfare, every feeling of satisfaction, is negative in its character; that is to say, it consists in freedom from pain, which is the positive element of existence. It follows, therefore, that the happiness of any given life is to be measured, not by its joys and pleasures, but by the extent to which it has been free from suffering--from positive evil.”

So, whether you become happy or accomplished in something, it means that you have displaced something in yourself, that is, evil that was present. Our happiness entails the displacement of evil (+) by “feeling of satisfaction” or “state of welfare (-).

So how does this seemingly dark philosophical view help someone going through a trauma or pain? What I note is that pain is with us most of the time, so I try to find ways to get rid of it. I do not focus on the fact that I am sad or in pain because pain is something to expect all the time. I only focus on how to get rid of the pain. I do not waste my time trying to brood over the pain or trauma because they are facts of life. I spend my time trying to get rid of what is present, the positive evil, by the negative happiness — negative because I do not possess it when I am sad.

Understanding that evil is present in our lives all the time frees me from assuming the unhelpful mindset of “why me lord?” I think to myself: “Okay, here is some pain, how do I get rid of it?”

What is avoided in this philosophical approach is what Jean-Paul Sartre, in Sketch for a Theory of the Emotions, calls “magical behavior”. Magical thinking is an emotional state where one expects the world to change to fit what one wants it to be after finding no solution to the problems one is facing.  John Searle in Seeing Things as They are: A Theory of Perception refers to this attitude as directions of fit: mind-to-world and world-to-mind. The mind-to-world behavior attempts to make us conform to world events, whatever they are. The world-to-mind, the Sartrean “magical behavior”, attempts to change the world to fit what our lives want.

When we fail in a certain task in the world, Sartre argues, we try to magically transform the character of the object in our task.  Magical behavior therefore masks our failures by transferring the problem to the object. Sartre explains: “I lift my hand to pluck a bunch of grapes. I cannot do so; they are beyond my reach; so I shrug my shoulders, muttering: ‘they are too green’, and go on my way.”  So instead of acknowledging one’s failure for not reaching the grapes, one shifts the focus away from the failure to reach the grapes and suddenly (bizarrely) confers on them the quality of being “green” and no longer an object of interest.

Another example. Think about a young man who tells his friends about a beautiful woman he is interested in asking out. But when he asks her out and she said “no”, he brushed the rejection aside and sneered: “She ain’t that beautiful anyway!” Instead of accepting the rejection as an inherent character of the world, what Heidegger calls being-in the-world, he transformed the woman. Apparently, the beauty of the woman is not in-the-world but depends on his desires.

Consequently, if you are going through a painful phase, know that you must find a solution to it because it will constantly come as part of life. And as Schopenhauer tells us, “Life is a task to be done.” So do life!


Kuir ë Garang is the editor of The Philosophical Refugee.

Notes: The books referenced in the article are provided as hyperlinks. 



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