I catch myself doing it all the time. “Watch out you don’t fall.”
“Be careful, you might hurt yourself.”
“Get down before you scrape your skin off.”
It was only when my daughter said, “It’s ok mom, if it hurts it will only be a little,” that I realized she was right and maybe I should just chill the hell out. I dialed my parental instincts back.
After all, I had gotten into (and out of) all kinds of painful situations in my life, hadn’t I? Did I really want my kids to be skirting the potential for pain all their lives? Where would that leave them?
It’s not just about our kids, though, is it? We ‘adults’ have turned into a bunch of chickens, where the fear of pain is greater than the pain itself.
In most cases, we’ve become helpless and not very daring where it matters. Sure maybe we go solo hiking in Nepal and share an AirBnB with strangers, but do we leave that safe relationship when it’s no longer working? Do we quit that miserable job because the alternatives are scary? Do we avoid speaking in public because of the fear of embarrassment? Do we shut out our creativity so we don’t get judged or ridiculed?
Yes, maybe you do, but guess what? We all have a fear-zone and if you’re brave in relationships, you’re probably not brave with saving money, and if you’re brave with your business, your fear might hide in your marriage. That’s how it works.
Pain is a Prophet
I remember my daughter, just a year ago when she was five, fell and scraped her knee. It was the tiniest little scrape you’ve ever seen. She cried for 20 minutes straight and no amount of soothing, kisses, red medicine (remember that you guys?) or mermaid band-aids could make it better. I’m glad to report she lived.
This morning, I saw a huge gash on the back of her arm and in barely contained alarm, asked her what happened.
“Oh it’s nothing mom, I just got scratched by a big thorn near the rose bush.”
It must have been a megathorn because my daughter’s skin had a 2 inch tear in it.
“Does it hurt?” I asked, all worried.
“A little,” she said. “I just said Ow.”
“Hunh!” I was baffled.
You see pain apparently, happens in the brain and not in the body. You cut your finger with a knife, your nerve ending send a signal to your brain that something happened, your brain freaks out and sends a signal back to your nerves to get the finger the hell away from that knife. That signal from you brain is all about saving you from chopping the rest of your arm off. It’s supposed to protect you. Pain is meant to educate you on the level of danger around you.
On painscience.com, Paul Ingraham explains that “pain is less painful when we are confident that we are safe. The brain critically evaluates every danger message it receives – considering it in context, sizing it up before deciding whether or not to take it seriously.” The brain grabs at all the bits of information it has access to – previous exposure, cultural influences, knowledge, sensory input, etc – and then decides how much pain to let the nerves feel.
So pain? Pain teaches you about the dangers of the world around you. Pain educates. Pain is the prophet that guides you to what’s possible.
Fear is a Motherfucker
Now if your brain comes across an unrecognizable event or a potential for pain, then fear kicks in. The amygdalae and our instinctual brain generate the fear emotion that launches the roller coaster of avoidance activities. The mind responds to fear by flashing scary images in your subconscious. If the danger can’t be avoided, then fear puts a stop to conscious thinking and activates the subconscious instinct to freeze, run or defend oneself.
Basically your brain goes on autopilot! As if that weren’t enough, the images flashing in your subconscious are images of the result of failure. If the lion catches me, his will be a gruesome dinner, you start thinking to yourself.
But fear can’t tell the difference between real or perceived danger and that’s where it all goes bananas. Can we truly equate the dangers of public speaking with the dangers of cave living? Is saying ‘no’ to your sleaze-bag manager really as terrible as dropping off a mile-high cliff?
Fear obstructs progress. Fear blinds us from rational thinking. Fear is a jumpy little bat that would prefer you to hide in the back of a dank cave for the rest of your life. Fear is way more drama than Lady Gaga and only a fraction of the entertainment. Fear, in short, is a motherfucker.
Dull Ache or Bing Bang?
In grown ups, fear often masquerades as stress or anxiety. Those are the names we give them to make ourselves feel like adults. The dilemma we find ourselves faced with is that if we want to walk away from fear, we find ourselves going towards pain, and then we have to make a bloody choice. Do I stay where I am or do I go towards something that might be worse?
Or it might not…
But we humans are bizarre creatures. We prefer to live with the dull ache of fear – that background pain we like to call stress – rather than take a courageous leap towards something we want, but might not achieve.
The chronic pain of dissatisfaction in life is so much more acceptable to most people than a momentary big bang – that big change, action, decision that might get rid of any aches altogether.
More of our choices become dictated by fear and less of them educated by pain.
Don’t stifle your kids with fear of trying new things, it’s not okay to slowly suffocate in stagnation. Don’t do that to yourself either. Don’t let the motherfucker get the best of your life, if you’re gonna give up your life, give it to a prophet.
N.B. I am not religious in any way and am not using my post to encourage, offend or dissuade anyone from anything remotely pious.