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156. The family (V)

This is a statement of the obvious: if a person or activity causes you pain, stop your engagement with that person or activity. This is obvious, yet a great many people do precisely the opposite—often for extended periods of time. The situation comes about because achievement often requires pain to be overcome; the endurance of pain can even be a way to signal and compete as regards manliness, thus in a petty way Englishmen will sometimes wear shorts deep into winter to demonstrate hardiness. All too often, particularly for people capable of strong effortful control, this leads to disaster: when your body experiences pain it does so to prevent you from damage. To override that message is, sometimes, essential—a mountaineer cannot stop on the mountain without the risk of death—and yet to override a message formed by thousands of years of evolution cannot usually be sensible.

The problem lies, in part, in a failure to distinguish between discomfort and pain. Discomfort is not the same as pain, and it is no great risk to feel discomfort; it is a cliché to speak about “leaving your comfort zone”. The flip side of this is the other cliché: “No pain, no gain.” The sustainable way to achieve gains is to slightly increase your exposure to a stressor, not to expose yourself to that stressor so that you are in pain. This is hormetic, based on Nietzsche’s dictum: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” At a gym, instructors push a person to the point where they feel uncomfortable, but not in actual pain; each iteration of the exercise increases the discomfort, so the body, in feedback, grows stronger. Yet any gym instructor will tell you that if an exercise causes a person actual pain, they have the wrong form or have taken on too much—they will injure themselves.

This is a particular problem for the West’s over-intellectualised societies, especially when our quasi-religion is “reason”. It starts at school: we are disciplined in a semi-military way to override what feels unnatural. This leads to a detachment between the mind and body, with the mind taught to ignore warnings from the body. Hence good psychotherapy—like dance—is meant to put a person back in contact with the body, with what they feel and intuit—and free them from the tyranny of the mind, the rationaliser.

People who mistake pain for progress are often intelligent and highly conscientious. Jordan Peterson is a perfect example of this: he is a man who constantly speaks of life being pain and suffering. As a clinical psychologist, an intellectual discipline, he overrides what he feels. His opponents, though not in good faith, are correct; he is not in touch with his emotions. He has used the mind to override what his body tells him: I am in chronic pain, something must be changed. This is, in part, why, after he forced himself, intellectually, into a hectic work schedule during his rise to fame, Peterson eventually suffered a complete collapse—ironically, this destroyed his credibility as a helpful psychologist, since he ended up hooked on psychiatric medication and physically shattered. His body sabotaged his mind: eventually the body wins and collapses the rational tyrant to make the punishment stop, to make the pain stop.

Peterson needed to dance, to feel his body; instead he submitted to the tyranny of reason. In his rational mind, he identified with Christ carrying his cross and thought others should too: we become what we worship and copy. Peterson could have copied Jesus feeding the five thousand or Jesus whipping the moneylenders from the Temple or Jesus healing the sick; but he chose to identify with Jesus flogged through the streets of Jerusalem, spat at by the public, and crowned with thorns. This identification was, I suggest, Peterson’s body telling him how it felt: flogged and crucified—in the end, he lived this out in reality. It was the only way to make his mind stop.

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