Pain is inevitable in our life and suffering may be avoidable

After seeing the movie, Oppenheimer, I discussed with my friends about if we were Oppenheimer, would we decide to lead the Manhattan Project given the possibility of being involved in political dynamics and experiencing intense ambivalence of having great success in history and contributing to destructive actions in wars.  Given the ambiguity of the possibility of the final use of the atomic bomb in wars, Oppenheimer and the team of scientists needed to embrace the mixed emotions during the whole process.  According to Steven Shapin, the Franklin L. Ford Research Professor of the History of Science in the Harvard University, Oppenheimer’s attitude towards the project was ambivalent to some degree.  Without the capacity to embrace mixed emotions and “pain” in taking up the leading role, it is impossible for him to make history.

If we pay attention to our reactions to many situations, we may notice that it is our nature to react in order to avoid pain in our lives.  For instance, if we foresee that we may face some difficulties in a task at work, we may try to avoid this task by rejecting the invitation or delegating to someone else.  Sometimes, we may work very hard to try to control a project in order to avoid failure or mistakes.  It is because failure or mistake makes us painful if we tend to experience shame in the face of these setbacks.  One of my clients was obsessed in writing perfect emails to one of his colleagues who tended to be uncooperative.  Every time he needed to ask this colleague to do a task for him to complete his work, he checked his email more than 10 times to make sure the messages were accurate.  He worried this colleague would pinpoint his mistakes and refused to complete the task for him.  As a result, this client was very anxious most of the time and even felt reluctant to go to work in the morning.

From the above, we may reflect that it is inevitable to face pain in our lives if we need to engage in meaningful work or even overcome challenges.  However, we can avoid experiencing suffering in the face of pain.  According to Jack Kornfield, a writer and teacher in Vipassana movement in Buddhism, suffering is our reaction to the inevitable pain.  For example, if one of my clients was given a very difficult task by his boss, he inevitably needed to face the pain in working in such a challenge and facing all the possible failure.  However, if he could embrace this necessary pain, such as the praise and blame of the success and failure in the project, he could avoid suffering more by being less reactive to this pain.  These reactions may include anxiety, fear, jealousy or frustration.  These emotional reactions may be related to our grasping.  In fact, the more we want to control or possess, the more we will suffer.  If this client struggled to control all the variables in this task in order to avoid being blamed, he would be very anxious.  In another instance, this client may suffer more if another colleague in this task was being given more credit and he felt jealous of him.

Whether we are facing an extraordinary project, such as the Manhattan Project, or a difficult challenge in our daily work, we may need to experience inevitable pain.  In every human circle, there is inevitable interpersonal dynamics.  These dynamics can create pain and challenges.  It is only when we are willing to face this pain and embrace the uncomfortable feelings and emotions associated with this pain, we can achieve success in all these difficult tasks.  Through embracing the necessary pain and let go of the tendency to control and to possess, we may be able to avoid suffering through experiencing this pain.  It is always true that “no pain, no gain”.

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