The Lovely Embrace of Pain

The Lovely Embrace of Pain: A breakdown of the uplifting promises that relationship with pain brings in love and community

Straining on your tippy-toes, you stretch your sausage-link fingers across the gleaming stove, barely reaching your glowing, red target. It’s so warm, so inviting…until, Ouch! It scorches your tender hand, sending you reeling backwards in a puddle of tears.

Whether this experience resonates—perhaps too traumatically—with you or someone around you, everyone knows that this retraction is an instinctual reaction to physical pain. But, what about our responses to non-physical, emotional wounds?

Emotional pain is just as real as—if not at times more apparent than—physical pain. Cue “heartbreak,” which is not just an arbitrary title but can feel excruciatingly real when it takes over your body, weighing you down with, ironically, the heaviest sense of emptiness. However, emotional pain differs from the physical because it involves inner conflict; our responses are no longer simple and reflexive. Rather, individuals differ in which solutions they are inclined to seek, and those paths are often crooked, swerving in multiple directions. Vulnerable, we take extreme caution, often asking questions such as How can I thrive with minimal pain? What can I fix? in order to first, come to terms with damage already done, and second, anticipate and avoid future pain.

However, this way of thinking might not actually take us where we want to go, wherever that may be. In those moments, you might wonder, Where should I look to take the next, best step? Are these even the right questions to ask?

What are the right questions to ask?

People often face this dilemma when they grapple with two prominent aspects of life: love and community. The two are closely interrelated and interdependent as parts of the larger system that is our world. Both are intangible concepts that humans ground in reality through their actions and emotional perceptions. Love is expressed between individuals, and love within groups of people forms community. Community cannot exist without love because it relies on relational bonds beyond mere group formation. There are many kinds of love and ways to show and understand it, and similarly, there are various types of communities at different depths.

So, how do we navigate love and community?

The Roman poet and philosopher, Lucretius, offers one method of handling love. In Book IV of Lucretius On the Nature of Things, he illustrates his harsh view of love as absolute pain.

To understand his argument, we must first understand the foundation of Lucretius’ worldview. Lucretius was an Epicurean philosopher, so he focused on prioritizing pleasure, seeking happiness by attaining peace without fear or pain, and explaining the world as wholly material without divine intervention.

In Lucretius’ material world, fixed “seeds,” [1] like atoms, form every body and soul. Stimulating these seeds, whether by a blow to the tangible body or intangible soul, causes a change in that form from its natural state. Human seed, which is sensory and sensible, [2] can only be stirred up by other humans. [3] This is where “falling in love” comes into the picture. When a person’s seeds are stimulated by another, that person is automatically drawn to the other with a desire for his or her body. This is because just as bodily blood spurts in the direction from which an injury is inflicted, people’s souls are also drawn to what causes their arousing blows. Lucretius describes this human inclination to “fall towards the wound” [4] as integral to human behavior when “the mind is smitten with love.” [5]

After presenting his fundamental association between love and wounds, in a series of theoretical scenarios and patterns, Lucretius explicates how love is inevitable infliction and receipt of pain, never satisfying, and draining yet consuming. Thus, for the happiest life, Lucretius concludes that love should be avoided completely. This shunning of love would not be shunning a pleasure but rather choosing to pursue other “joys which brings no pain.” [6]

Lucretius’ argument, though, is a difficult one to swallow. Especially when it is examined through the lens of human experience and application, Lucretius’ argument becomes impractical and insensible. In fact, the feasibility of completely avoiding love is highly questionable. Understanding this idea relies on two fundamental postulates within two forms of context. The first part looks at love in community, while the second assesses love in human design.

First, all humans inevitably encounter love in community. According to Lucretius’ belief, experiencing love requires the presence of at least two people, since the human seed must be stimulated by another human. According to human experience, it can also be observed that all humans are born into some form of community. Not only are babies born from mothers, but due to proximity, every human also encounters another human at some point (even Tarzan eventually did). Throughout history, humans have congregated to share resources and socio-emotional support in order to enhance their survival. These congregations also consisted of naturally-occurring families that depended on interpersonal nurture. Further, today’s advanced culture revolves around connecting with other people, from social media and networking to education and innovation. In all cases, basic human involvement in community entails formation of relationships, which all involve some degree and form of love.

The fact that love’s encounter is unavoidable actually shadows another overarching reality that love is out of total human control. Love is action, emotion, and cognition that is expressed, felt, and understood. Though human actions do involve choice, emotions and spontaneous thoughts often do not. Emotions and thoughts are both intangible and invisible, so control over them is difficult for humans to claim. If people could predetermine their “spontaneous thoughts,” those thoughts would no longer be spontaneous. In addition, it is doubtful that humans who can barely perceive every thought they have are purposefully conceiving each one. Thus, encountering love as an action, emotion, or cognition is inevitable and uncontrollable, on both the individual and communal levels.

This idea actually leads into the second contextual point. If people inherently lack complete dominance over love’s experience, do they really have the ability to withdraw from it?

For one, to withdraw from love would insinuate that it was already encountered. This further underlines love’s greater power than and over humans, undermining the likelihood of overcoming it. More importantly, though, withdrawal is actually impossible for two main reasons: love is part of human life’s design, and Lucretius’ proposal to withdraw is self-contradictory.

Human design can be understood similarly to love. Love as action, emotion, and cognition is a combination of choice and occurrence. So is human life. An individual’s body and mind are not pure products of his intention because people are born into bodies with unique characteristics that they did not create themselves; a person’s form is a result of “occurrence” outside his control. Most people, though, believe that they also have the innate gift of “choice” as “free will,” or the ability to make decisions.

This is where Lucretius’ own foundational view of human design cripples his following argument in an ironic paradox. In his proposed solution, Lucretius orders people to simply “avoid being drawn into the meshes of love.” [7] Avoidance, though, requires decision-making and immaterial, metaphysical “free will” which cannot exist in Lucretius’ solely material world. Therefore, control of one’s fears, desires, and actions about love is impossible since first, without free will, humans have no control over their behavior, and second, if the mind and spirit are all material, fears and desires must be results of uncontrollable, spontaneous events. So, without any control, people can neither avoid falling in love nor actively get themselves out of it. Lucretius may as well have called humans pitiful puppets of chance.

But in a world that is more than mere atomic formations, humans can choose how they respond to chance encounters with love. It is ingrained into how they are designed to live. Coming full circle, then, love is an unavoidable and necessary part of life from which complete withdrawal is impossible.

Another principle characteristic of Lucretius’ view is that it ultimately seeks painlessness. For this purpose, Lucretius urges isolation. However, there are two critical issues with this goal-orientation.

First, isolation does not actually result in freedom from pain. Rather, it is deeply associated with and often brings more pain.

In fact, in the Italian poet Dante’s Purgatorio of his Divine Comedy, isolation is the crux characteristic of hell and Satan’s punishment. As Professor of Comparative Literature and Italian Studies at Wellesley College Rachel Jacoff describes in her book The Cambridge Companion to Dante, “the deepest isolation is to suffer separation from the source of all light and life and warmth,” which is “the ultimate and universal pain of Hell” [8] in the Ninth and last circle of Dante’s Purgatorio. [9] Satan’s character embodies this severe punishment because he is banished from heaven as a fallen angel “isolated from his own kind” [10] to the darkest, coldest center of Hell. [11] What makes Hell’s isolation particularly torturesome is its pervasive loneliness.

Loneliness is one of the deepest, most prevalent kinds of personal pain. Today, forty percent of Americans say they are lonely compared to twenty percent in the 1980s. [12] It is important to note the difference between being alone and being lonely, but it must also be recognized that the two are strongly related. Isolation is the process or state of being alone, or physically separate from others. In particular, “social isolation” is an individual’s lack of contact and connection to society; social isolation would be the ultimate result of attempting to withdraw from love as Lucretius suggests. Loneliness is the subjective feeling and perception of isolation. Loneliness can exist even when a person is surrounded by others, but it is especially likely to arise with isolation.

Social isolation has been extensively shown by several studies to increase health problems, ranging from impaired immune systems and sleep patterns to heightened stress and risk of cardiovascular diseases. [13] It has even been linked to a doubled risk of premature death. [14] Such connections between physical states of social proximity and personal health cannot be ignored. Further, the relationship between an individual’s physical and psychological states is just as important. For instance, people who suffer with physical chronic pain, which often also induces depression and/or anxiety, [15] are highly likely to engage in isolating behavior. [16] More importantly and broadly, people in poor health, particularly those with anxiety or depression, are more likely to be lonely. [17] Therefore, physical, emotional, and mental isolation, pain, and loneliness are inextricably linked. Together, they can create a toxic cycle of agonizing despair that traps a person rather than freeing him.

Second, the goal itself of painlessness is dubious. For if both engaging in love as Lucretius portrays and isolating oneself from it result in pain, it seems that painlessness is not even possible. At least, there is no concrete proof that it is. That would also mean that there are no other “joys which bring no pain” [18] to seek in love’s stead. Well, then, is there even anything to seek? What have we been doing all along?

Before drowning in hopelessness, it is important to remember that wishing for the least pain possible was not utterly insensible or wrong; pain is by definition not pleasurable. It must also be made clear that pain should not become the new goal. We can, however, shift our focus. Perhaps, rather than striving for absolute absence of pain, we should dedicate ourselves to accepting the pain in our world, particularly with love and community, and working with it. This comes down to understanding that human interaction with pain is itself a relationship that is important, good, and necessary.

The idea of a journey with pain for a good goal is not new; it is often colloquially expressed as “no pain, no gain.” However, this phrase belittles pain as a great enemy to conquer and overcome rather than a working partner. Also, it cannot be flipped to promise “yes pain, yes gain” because most goals are influenced by other factors that keep achievement uncertain. There are, though, other illustrations that highlight the beauty and significance of relationship with pain. It just so happens that a number of them can be found in the Bible.

This idea is prevalent in phrases such as “take up their [your] cross,” [19] “lose their [your] life,”20 “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you,” [21] and especially, “rejoice in our sufferings.” [22] In the New Testament, Jesus himself embodies all of these commands and thus offers himself and these phrases as guides for how to live.

The first two phrases allude to Jesus’ crucifixion, taking upon not only the physical cross but also the world’s sins by offering up his life and conquering death for humankind, “so that the world may know that you [God] sent me [Jesus] and loved them even as you loved me.” [23] “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son,” [24] and in turn, Jesus, who was the “first” son, became “last” so that “the last,” or broken humans, could “be first.” [25] Making this choice and enduring suffering were not pleasant for Jesus. In fact, before his crucifixion, Jesus cried out to God, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.” [26] He even sweated blood as he prayed. Yet, his next prayer was in obedience and embrace of the suffering because he knew it was for a greater, good, and necessary purpose: “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” [27] Because of Jesus’ obedience, we were offered a promise of eternal life and “great” reward in heaven, [28] a goal whose outcome is certain as long as we receive and believe. In all these verses, it is very apparent that sacrifice was made purely out of love in community; from God to humans, from Jesus to humans, from God to Jesus, and from Jesus to God. Love is the foundation for the community, and it is created in giving and serving.

The next command addresses more concrete ways in which humans can love in community that involves pain. As Jesus loved, people are also called to “love one another.” [29] However, this does not only include those we already like because they showed us love first; that would be selfish and exclusive. Rather, God calls us to make the harder choice to “love your enemies.” [30] If the perfect God did so first by showing endless love to a world that despised him, who are we as imperfect people to belittle or hate each other? One way to love others is to pray for their growth and benefit, especially when they persecute us because all sin points to human brokenness and need for fulfillment by the greater Him. In this kind of community, we could also find comfort in knowing that others would pray for us when we fail by hurting them, so that we can turn around, learn, and grow. The focus here is on giving, because if everyone was always giving, everyone would automatically always be able to receive as well; without giving, there could only be unjust, selfish taking. Another way to give is to share lessons learned from falls when others struggle with similar pain. Jesus came to empower and use “those who are sick,” [31] not the perfectly strong, because God’s “power is made perfect in weakness.” [32] Accordingly, we can strengthen community with our understanding of shared weaknesses.

The last phrase that “we rejoice in our sufferings” [33] points to a larger truth about the necessity and importance of pain. We rejoice because “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,” [34] which we only have because of God’s active love and gift of everlasting salvation. Instead of wallowing in pain or striking others because of it, we rejoice because its cause—our brokenness—is exactly what God redeemed with his saving grace. Our “imperfection” is an important, necessary part of God’s “perfect” design. God offers his gift of saving grace so that, if we accept it, we can be in relationship with him, who is perfect love and community. Without his gift, we would only be broken; without our brokenness, God’s sacrifice would no longer hold significance as salvation. God did not make us sinful, but in our lacking, he made us whole.

As humans, we will inevitably deal with pain, especially in love and community. However, we have the freedom to choose how we do so, with love and community. Through Jesus and in the Bible, God offers the liberating option to dive into relationship with him and to serve and love others in our community.

The next step of how this relationship with pain in love and community will look in your life depends on you. I encourage you to ask yourself these new questions: What ultimate purpose and reward will you prioritize because it is worth it? What can you give, and whom can you serve? What will you choose that can set you free?

 

 

1 Titus Lucretius Carus, Lucretius On the Nature of Things, trans. Cyril Bailey (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910), 101-103.
2 Lucretius, 56.
3 Lucretius, 101.
4 Lucretius, 101.
5 Lucretius, 101.
6 Lucretius, 102.
7 Lucretius, 103.
8 Rachel Jacoff, The Cambridge Companion to Dante, ed. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 143.
9 Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri: Purgatorio, trans. Allen Mandelbaum (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), Canto XXXII.
10 Jacoff, 143.
11 Alighieri, Canto XXXIV.
12 Dhruv Khullar, “How Social Isolation Is Killing Us,” The New York Times, 12 November 2017, <https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/22/ upshot/how-social-isolation-is-killing-us.html>.
13 Jessica Olien, “Loneliness Is Deadly,” Slate, 12 November 2017, <http://www.slatecom/articles/health_and_science/medical_ examiner/2013/08/dangers_of_loneliness_ social_isolation_is_deadlier_than_obesity. html>.
14 Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Timothy B. Smith, J. Bradley Layton, “Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review,” PLoS Med 7 (2010): 1-20.
15 Michelle A. Bosco, Jessica L. Gallinati, Michael E. Clark, “Conceptualizing and Treating Comorbid Chronic Pain and PTSD,” Pain Research and Treatment (2013): 1-10.
16 Rachel Noble Benner, “Chronic pain not only hurts, it also causes isolation and depression. But there’s hope.,” The Washington Post, 12 November 2017, <https://www.washingtonpost. com/national/health-science/chronic-pain-not-only-hurts-it-also-causes-isolation-and-depression-but-theres-hope/2015/01/12/ db576178-7fe7-11e4-81fd-8c4814dfa9d7_story. html?utm_term=.ea083a556576>.
17 C. Wilson, B. Moulton, “Loneliness among Older Adults: A National Survey of Adults 45+,” Knowledge Networks and Insight Policy Research (2010): 1-35.
18 Lucretius, 102.
19 Matthew 16:24 (ESV)
20 Luke 9:24 (ESV)
21 Matthew 5:44 (ESV)
22 Romans 5:35 (ESV)
23 John 17:23 (ESV)
24 John 3:16 (ESV)
25 Matthew 20:16 (ESV)
26 Luke 22:42 (ESV)
27 Luke 22:42 (ESV)
28 Matthew 5:12 (ESV)
29 John 13:34 (ESV)
30 Matthew 5:44 (ESV)
31 Mark 2:17 (ESV)
32 2 Corinthians 12:9 (ESV)
33 Romans 5:3 (ESV)
34 Romans 5:4 (ESV)

 

Jamie Har is a sophomore from Northern California studying Communication. Music and food are the two things that always make her dance, and she laughs a little too much at punny play-on-words.

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