Pain, Fear, Loss, Death, and Guilt

It seems to me that there are five major personal problems in life that we must deal with on an emotional and existential level. There are, of course, other personal problems and quite a myriad of social problems that are for another time. But, for now, let's take a look at these five.


Pain

Pain is the most obvious, and the most pervasive. Pain is essentially an error signal that is saying there is something wrong. With all problems there are two options that we have, we can either change the outside circumstances, or we can change our inside perspectives.

If we can, then we should change the outside circumstances. If you have a health issue that you can fix, then you should fix it. If, just as a for instance, you went on a misadventure to Africa and became severely ill, were even told you were going to die while you were there. Then, you got back and couldn't get better. Your entire digestive system was severely damaged and that was also completely messing up your immune system. And, you also found out that you had four major spinal deformities that you didn't know about and your atlas vertebrae slid into your brainstem causing all sorts of issues like rapid heart rate, shaking, a massive and continuous migraine with light and sound sensitivity, memory loss, and a bunch of other stuff. If this were to happen to you (this is from my own experience) then you should do everything you can to fix all of these issues. You should go to doctors until you find out the extreme level of general incompetence, corruption, perverse incentives, and conflicts of interests which exist in that industry and then avoid them like the plague. You should go to a number of chiropractors and other practitioners and test those options (the chiropractor is the one that will work). You should do extreme diet experiments until you find that carnivore helps you cope and GAPS helps you repair and then combine these into a unique system specifically designed for you, which you will know because you track everything you eat and how you feel between each meal to identify patterns. You should do all of this and much more. But, you might not be able to fix everything this way.

For those things that can't be fully fixed you need to be able to confront those limitations and overcome them through a change not on the outside, but a change on the inside. Through a number of experiments you may learn that sensation meditation in the vein of Vipassana will cause significant and seemingly permanent changes in your perception of pain. All of these things, and more, are a small price to pay to mitigate pain.

Fear

Fear can be crippling. It is like a living thing. It's inside of you, and if you feed it, it will grow. There's also the complexity that many fears are reasonable. If there is a huge snowstorm outside (I'm in Michigan so that's not uncommon) maybe you should be a little scared to go for a long drive. That's a fear that might be saving your life, or your checkbook. But, many of our fears are not actually helping us. In those cases I've found that two things work.

The first is exposure. To some extent that's why I've done the adventures I've done. Just a few weeks ago I went alligator wrestling. It was a blast. It was also a little scary. That's an extreme case of overcoming fears through exposure. There's a disturbing study called the Little Albert Experiment where they caused fears in a baby by making loud noises behind a child's head when it was exposed to certain objects. This drives a fear response in nice and deep. Loud sudden noises are perfect for causing fear in humans. This child was lost in the government system (I said it was disturbing), but another child with almost the same symptoms was found. They were able to fix a lot of the fears by slowly exposing the child to the fear objects. For instance, you can set a white stuffed bear that the child is afraid of on the other side of the room while he plays with blocks a long way off. Over time you can move it closer. This simple exposure therapy works, and it works well. You can do it with almost anything. Start small and grow. I heard a legend before about Johann Wolfgang von Goethe being afraid of heights. So, he went up to the top of a tall tower and just stood near the edge for a bunch of nights until he was no longer afraid. I did skydiving, but I guess the tower thing is cool too.

One of the problems with exposure therapy is that it takes a long time, or at least it can. Paradoxical intention on the other hand is fast, very fast, and it can be long lasting slash permanent too. This comes from Viktor Frankl's Logotherapy (my favorite psychologist). This is quite amazing. What you do is try to willfully increase your fear. You realize this isn't possible, so it's kind of funny really. You might even laugh. Try as hard as you can to feel as afraid as you can. You can't. It's hilarious. This is powerful stuff, I think that you can get yourself to do almost anything with this method. I encountered this in my teens and I've done quite a few harrowing adventures and it has never failed in the moment. I think it might have some possibilities in reducing things like giving into cravings and such too, but that's for another time.

Loss

If you've lost something that you would prefer to have not lost and you can regain this lost thing, then do it. That's great. But...

Usually if we are experiencing loss then we can't regain the thing. That's the issue. We've all had people close to us die, if you haven't yet then you will. It's extremely important to learn how to deal with this. Time will heal, well, maybe. Grieving can happen fast or slow, or not at all. It depends on whether you are willing to confront those feelings of loss. A great way of dealing with traumatic events is the original technique explored by Sigmund Freud and his mentor (who I like more) Josef Breuer. This is where you relive the event until you're able to emotionally process it. Finding someone that actually knows how to do this is a quite difficult task, and then the therapy is quite painful as well, but it works. This is essentially what people are doing when they say that time heals. They are encountering these memories in a haphazard way and slowly, over time, processing them.

On a more intellectual level there are two insights that I find extremely helpful. The first one I had was after I started asking what had actually been lost. In the case of a person dying you might be thinking of all the time, all of the events they could have gone to, all of the memories they could have made. But, these were not things, and they are not things. They are only in your mind. You imagined them, and then when the world didn't meet your expectations you felt like you lost something. What you lost was your false expectation. If you can adopt this perspective then your troubles with loss will evaporate and you'll have a hard time appearing somber at funerals, as I struggle with mightily. I also have an odd habit, and I'm not sure if this is a thing that should be recommended or avoided, of essentially pre-grieving people. I think of everyone as being dead in the future, which just jumps into my mind at random, I deal with it in a few minutes, and then it's not a huge surprise when things happen. Play with that at your own peril.

There are also usually benefits to loss. If it's a person dying then they don't have to experience anymore pain. Life is an exercise in the varieties and subtleties of pain. It's a huge upside of dying. There can be others, but I think this one stands as a pillar on its own.

Death

I'm talking about dealing with your own death here. If you're dying from something that you can fix, then fix it. But, if it's fighting cancer by surgery, radiation, and chemo then I've seen enough people go through that to more strongly associate it with paying for your own torture, like expensive masochism, rather than any type of health enhancement. If you can enhance your health, then do it. At some point though, no matter what you do, you will have to deal with your own doom.

What's scary about death, other than potential pain and we've already dealt with that, is the finality of mortality. It is done, it is finished. Your life is over and there is no more. You can't do one more of that, or have one more of this. Nothing.

This brings to the fore the real issue, which is that life is limited and thus we must choose. And with that choice comes the possibility of making the wrong choice. Thus, guilt and regret, which is next. I think one of those intellectual insights, which are only really helpful if you also process their consequences emotionally, is quite helpful here. All of the good things are done. But, so are all of the bad things. If that's not comforting then you have a rosier view of the experience of life than I.

I think another useful thing to mention here, actually I think I'll do two, is active imagination. This is a mental technique (that's not really accurate because it encompasses much more than just thinking) where you focus on a fantasy situation, maybe something from a dream, and watch it move. See what happens. Then, you begin to act in this situation. You work out the problem. By working out the problem in this symbolic setting you free your mind to structure your perception of reality in such a way that you can solve the problem in your life. I think there is tremendous potential here.

Also, Viktor Frankl talks about life being like a movie. We can only know the meaning of a movie at the end. But, we had to experience all of the scenes of the movie leading up to that end to understand it. That's just like life. The meaning will be there. There is always meaning. Also, the more comprehensive the meaning is the less comprehensible it is. He phrases it like that. Maybe a bit easier to understand might be something like, the more encompassing the meaning is the less likely we will be able to succinctly articulate it's meaning. I'm not sure if that helped explain it or not, but it's important to understand because the human mind is built for, and about, and from narratives. And your life is a narrative.

Guilt

Three things. 1 - If you can fix the thing you're guilty about then fix it. 2 - Guilt is a signal that you need to change yourself so that you will act differently in the future. Do that. 3 - Guilt shows a need and desire for punishment and forgiveness. I don't really know what to do with that last insight yet, but I'm sure it's important.

I'm still trying to really figure out guilt. I have some insight, but not enough for it to be very useful. I'm not sure how it relates and is intertwined, and different from, regret. And, more importantly, I'm not sure how to use it to guide life, because that seems like its real function. Jeff Bezos, Mark Cuban, and Ross Perot all talk about minimizing regret over the lifetime. They're all interesting billionaires. That can't be a coincidence.

Pain, Fear, Loss, Death, and Guilt

Oddly enough, these five horrible things can also be powerful levers for making life better. If not by changing external circumstances then by changing our inner perspectives. But, only when we can't avoid or fix them. The first four I've learned to handle pretty darn well at this point, the encountering them wasn't initially a choice, but the confronting them was. That last one, I still have some major insights to be gained there, and I'm looking forward to those being revealed in the future.

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I've written two fictional pieces that I like so far.


"The City of Peace" - A future history science fiction utopia/dystopia action adventure in a framed story of a father telling his son a story about the child's grandfather.

http://www.jeffreyalexandermartin.com/2017/08/the-xprize-writing-contest-part-5-of-5.html

"The Birth of Hanniba'al" - A dark, somewhat alternative, historical origin story for the Carthage General Hannibal.

http://www.jeffreyalexandermartin.com/2017/11/write-michigan-short-story-contest-part_30.html


Here are three of my most popular posts.


"The Making of a Great First Line in Fiction"

http://www.jeffreyalexandermartin.com/2017/12/the-making-of-great-first-line-in.html

"A Letter to My Niece in 2034"

http://www.jeffreyalexandermartin.com/2017/12/a-letter-to-my-niece-in-2034.html

"The Most Important Question in Philosophy - Part 4 of 4"

http://www.jeffreyalexandermartin.com/2017/11/the-most-important-question-in.html


You can find more of what I'm doing here: http://www.JeffreyAlexanderMartin.com

You can support this page at https://www.patreon.com/JeffreyAlexanderMartin

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