Charlie's Blog: The Purest Form of Pain


The Purest Form of Pain

Because in much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain.

Wisdom is the purest form of pain.

At my old job, I had a boss who was also a friend. He is the only good boss I have ever had in my working life, and I would work for him again in a heartbeat. The thing we had most in common was a surprise/disgust thing with corporate stupidity. One example would be how our multi-million dollar operation was going to be shut down as we waited days for an essential part to arrive. Using ingenuity and common sense, one of our maintenance people fixed the problem with a 2 cent paperclip and kept things going until the part arrived. For his valiant efforts on behalf of the company, the powers that be wrote up that maintenance guy and threatened him with termination because he had not followed the "policy." For anyone familiar with this management move, it is called putting policies before profits. My old boss shook his head at this outlandish stupidity and uttered his oft repeated catchphrase. "Wisdom is the purest form of pain," he said. I would hear it many times if not almost daily.

The gist of the catchphrase is that it is hard to be a person with common sense in a world gone mad. Frederick Douglass experienced the same thing when he managed to do what few slaves in his day were allowed to do and able to do. Douglass learned to read. Reading opened his mind to the larger world beyond slavery and gave him a taste for freedom. You would think this enabled life to be better for Douglass in his chains, but it didn't. It made it worse. By increasing his wisdom, he had increased his suffering because he knew things were really messed up instead of just sort of messed up. His brothers and sisters in chains could always retreat to their ignorant place in their free moments but not Douglass.

They say that ignorance is bliss, and they are right. My life would be way more pleasant if I didn't keep up with the news from around the world. Instead of watching wars, atrocities, Christian persecution, disease, and starvation, I could just saturate my brain with celebrity gossip. Or, I could do one better and just watch sports. So much of today's media consumption, gaming, and the rest exist not to make people smarter but to nurse their ignorance. It is like a gigantic Ignorance Support System that keeps people largely brain dead concerning the world. If you can't change the world, the next best thing is to make it disappear. The ISS is a great way to do this.

I think the ISS is antithetical to the Christian life. If you believe that pleasure is the good and pain is the bad, then the ISS is what you need. Epicurus would applaud the ISS because it was a teaching of Epicurus that knowledge was only useful if it decreased suffering instead of increasing it. Since conventional hard news will bum you out, it is best to tune it out like most cows eating grass do. The problem with this strategy is that ignorance does not last forever. Reality has a nasty habit of intruding, and this is why people talk about being "shocked." What is the shock? Where does this come from? When the doctor tells you that you have cancer and will die, why is this such a shock? The answer is obvious. In the world of ignorant bliss, you forget that you are mortal and that life will end. It becomes an illusion and a fantasy. But when reality hits, it devastates the ones not prepared. They never saw it coming, so the sting of it all is much worse. It would sting less with better preparation, but this preparation is known as "wisdom." It was because of wisdom that Frederick Douglass found the will and the brains to escape his slavery.

People don't like wisdom. Tell the truth to people, and you will see where it gets you. You will share the fate of prophets and whistleblowers who are always maligned and ill treated for daring to pull back the curtain of ignorance. People don't want this premature enlightenment. They want to be stupid right up to the point that the stupidity is no longer tenable. Then, when the crisis passes, they return to their illusions like dogs returning to their vomit.

As a wise person put it, what you don't know can still hurt you. Pain is not optional. It is ultimately inescapable. People try in their various ways to escape the pain, but there is no escape. There are times of momentary relief, but this life is a sort of hell. Pretending it away is a losing strategy. Epicurus discovered this when that gigantic kidney stone lodged in his urethra. His pleasant life ended in an exrcuciating crucible of pain and torment. He may have tried to assuage it by surrounding himself with the company of good friends, but intense and chronic pain has the capacity to diminish all pleasure. You are going to suffer. Nothing is going to change this.

At this point, Gentle Reader, I could just leave you twisting with this depressing wisdom. I know what you are thinking. You want me to answer the question. How can I escape this suffering? My answer is that you can't escape it. To end suffering in this life would require hitting the reset button on all of creation. What you want is Heaven, and life is not Heaven. It will never be Heaven. But it isn't quite Hell either. The atheists wish to deny Hell. Once this denial is confirmed in them, suicide is not long in coming. I think Johnny Mandel captured it well with the song "Suicide is Painless" that people may remember from M*A*S*H:

The game of life is hard to play
I'm gonna lose it anyway
The losing card I'll someday lay
So this is all I have to say.

The only way to win is cheat
And lay it down before I'm beat
And to another give my seat
For that's the only painless feat.

The sword of time will pierce our skins
It doesn't hurt when it begins
But as it works its way on in
The pain grows it grin, but...

A brave man once requested me
To answer questions that are key
Is it to be or not to be
And I replied 'oh why ask me?'

'Cause suicide is painless
It brings on many changes
And I can take or leave it if I please.
...and you can do the same thing if you please.

Suicide is painless if there is no God, and there is no Hell. Suicide is the infantile attempt to shut off one's consciousness. The only difference between suicide and the Ignorance Support System is that suicide is final. The Buddhist religion is essentially the same thing as the ISS. Buddhism seeks to end suffering by a trick of the mind with that sound of one hand clapping which sounds remarkably like an escape from common sense. The ancient Stoics attempted much the same thing in their retreat to their inner citadel. All of this represents varying degrees of mental and spiritual suicide.

The Bible is pretty clear on this. There is a Hell. Suicide is not an escape. It merely increases and makes permanent the misery and despair you feel in this life. The Bible is also clear on where suffering comes from. Suffering comes from the knowledge of good and evil.

The story of Adam and Eve is important because it shows us where our misery comes from. What separates humanity from the animals is having a soul but also that knowledge of good and evil. Animals are ignorant in their bliss. They don't know where they came from, and they don't know where they are going. They are innocent in all things. Their lives are mostly pleasant fulfillment of their desires until they die or get slaughtered. The goal of all worldly philosophies and religions is to make humans like the animals once again. It is to return in some way to the blissful ignorance. But this return to Eden is not possible, and it is not God's will. Once enlightened, a soul can never return to its ignorance. You can't unknow what you know. You can only forget for a time.

The only way out of the pain is through the pain. People acquainted with suffering know this. An Army Ranger returned from multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan told me this. They had a saying over there when things were really tough. "Embrace the suck," they said. It seems counterintuitive, but it brings relief. If avoiding the pain only increases it, acceptance of the pain makes it endurable. People in the military and competitors in ultra-endurance events know this truth. They go to the dark places of suffering and depression on purpose. As Leadville Trail 100 creator Ken Choluber put it, "Make friends with pain, and you will never be alone."

Is this masochism? The answer is no. It is the pursuit of deeper wisdom. This is where mystery comes into the mix. Even the hardest life has illusion in it. Pain strips away those illusions. Suffering takes you to a place that is more real than real. This is because there is joy, renewal, redemption, and resurrection on the other side of that suffering. If suffering is all that came from suffering, it would be masochism. But we suffer in order to enjoy something better.

Women in pregnancy know this truth better than anyone else. They don't get pregnant, so they can ejoy the misery of carrying around that extra weight which culminates in the painful delivery of a new life. They get pregnant in order to have children. This image of the mother in labor recurs in the Bible. Whether it is Eve or Mary, birth begins in pain and ends in joy. In this great mystery is God's purpose with all of this project known as creation. God allows no bad thing which will not result in a greater thing. The end of the suffering will herald something better than what existed before the suffering. Otherwise, suffering would have no purpose or meaning in our lives. The work of Christ was not merely to correct an error. Both the Fall and the Redemption bring about a better world and a better place than what was before the Fall. This is our hope. This is why we can embrace suffering because we know that it will bring much good at the end. This is Christ, the apostles, His blessed mother, and all His saints.

The punishment of the Fall was to be denied access to the Tree of Life. The reward of Christ's life, death, and resurrection was to open up once more that access to the Tree of Life. The Tree of Life is the Cross.

When Catholics take the Eucharist, they are eating from the Tree of Life. I know. The mind can't wrap itself around this. How did an instrument of torture and death become the Tree of Life? That is a mystery. Here are the words of Christ:
Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. 
 MATTHEW 16:24-25 NAS
You see this in life today. Everyone seeks to avoid pain and suffering, and they seek it so hard that they destroy themselves in various ways including drug overdose and suicide. Blissful ignorance is a form of suicide. It attempts to kill the mind while leaving the body alive.

All other paths in life are mere attempts to escape the suffering. The Christian path especially the Catholic Christian path embraces the suffering. It is the only path that does this. By embracing the Cross of Christ, you experience life instead of trying to escape it. You embrace the cross when you accept the sufferings of this life and put your hope in our Blessed Savior who will never abandon us. The reason there is suffering is because we do not have the capacity to love God, others, or even ourselves. The Tree of Life is the Tree of Love. In the Cross, Christ offers to God and to us the absolute degree of His love. Life is to know the Love of God. As Jesus put it in John 15:13, "Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends."

The simple fact is that people would rather be miserable, suffer, die, and even spend eternity in Hell than love God. This is the wisdom people do not want. They want to seclude themselves in some far off place where the love of God is absent. When they succeed, this secluded place is Hell. As C.S. Lewis put it, "The doors of Hell are locked on the inside." People put themselves in Hell by their own choices and actions. This is the opposite of wisdom. This is foolishness. But fools have free will, and they get exactly what they choose.

Jesus praises wisdom. The best example of this praise is the Parable of the Unjust Steward,

Now He was also saying to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and this manager was reported to him as squandering his possessions. And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an accounting of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig; I am ashamed to beg. I know what I shall do, so that when I am removed from the management people will welcome me into their homes.’ And he summoned each one of his master’s debtors, and he began saying to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ And he said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ And he said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’  Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ And he said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’  And his master praised the unrighteous manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the sons of this age are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light. And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by means of the wealth of unrighteousness, so that when it fails, they will receive you into the eternal dwellings.
LUKE 16:1-9 NAS
Now, the unjust steward was a scoundrel and not a good man at all. It boggles the mind that Jesus would praise such a character. But what He praises is the good sense that this scoundrel had to take care of himself for the inevitable. This is a message to us to be wise and repent of our sins before it is too late. The unjust steward was wise because he had longer time horizons. He did not bury his head in the sand and wish his fate away. He got down to work and made an escape plan and executed on the plan.

Ignorance may be bliss, but this bliss does not last forever. Let us never envy the foolish. Instead, let us be patient because times may be tough in the short term, but they will result in a great blessing in the long term. Wisdom is painful, but it isn't painful forever. Folly is pleasant, but it always ends in pain. Embrace the pain for the time being but never lose sight of the reward that is to come.