Ammar Mian

A Modern Allergy to Pain

Modern life is the squeamish reaction to blood.

A child falls off his bike -- his hands scab over with the blistered, dotted pattern of hot pavement. A young artist's hand slips as he carves linoleum, drawing a chunk of flesh from his left thumb.

These are painful happy little accidents. The child learns that to steer a bike, he must use his bodyweight more than the handlebars. The artist learns to pay mind to the tension of chisel dragging into linoleum.

Some children make that mistake once, and are forever forbidden from biking on the street. Some artists draw blood and are told to avoid sharp instruments. Just as they are on the precipice of important lessons, they are instead sheltered from what induced them.

Modern life is the attempt to banish pain and uncertainty. It is the attempt to smoothen what is inherently choppy and linearize what is inherently nonlinear.

But most learning happens after scraped knees, failed exploration, dead ends, pain, and discomfort. The shitty feeling that this engenders is precisely what makes room for profound realization in its aftermath. But only if it's allowed to exist.

Upon reflection, it's crazy how many really deeply ingrained lessons I've acquired by "drawing blood" and going back to the drawing board. I once went flying over the front handlebars of my bike rolling down an SF hill, all because I hadn't bothered to ever get good at riding (mounting, dismounting, maneuvering, signaling, etc). The next day I went to a park and just practiced until I got a little bit better.

Rather than organizing our lives into structured programs of pain and uncertainty avoidance, perhaps it is more useful to jump headfirst into the unknown and figure out how to climb back up. Philosophically speaking, this is the practice of discovering primitives on your own, rather than relying on the testimony of others to define them.

If research on neuroplasticity has shown us anything, it's that we leave so much of our own capabilities on the table because we view ourselves to be fixed, brittle entities. So the solution may be to live life on the edge of blood. If we cannot find the joy that resides in difficulty, we don't deserve all these modern things that we claim as "progress". Comfort is the enemy.

June 2017