A Stoic Response to Pain

“Whenever you suffer pain, keep in mind that it’s nothing to be ashamed of and that it can’t degrade your guiding intelligence, nor keep it from acting rationally and for the common good. And in most cases you should be helped by the saying of Epicurus, that pain is never unbearable or unending, so you can remember these limits and not add to them in your imagination. Remember too that many common annoyances are pain in disguise, such as sleepiness, fever and loss of appetite. When they start to get you down, tell yourself you are giving in to pain.” — Marcus Aurelius

In 1931, on a trip to New York City, Winston Churchill was struck crossing the street by a car going more than thirty miles an hour. A witness at the scene was sure that he had been killed. He would spend some eight days in the hospital, with cracked ribs and a severe head wound.

Churchill somehow retained consciousness. When he spoke to the police, he went to great lengths to insist that he was completely to blame and wanted no harm to come to the driver. Later, the driver came to visit Churchill at the hospital. When Churchill heard that the driver was out of work, he tried to offer him— the man who had nearly killed him— some money. More than his own pain, he was worried that the publicity from the accident would hurt the man’s job prospects and sought to help how he could.

“Nature is merciful,” he later wrote in a newspaper article about the experience, “and does not try her children, man or beast, beyond their compass. It is only where the cruelty of man intervenes that hellish torments appear. For the rest— live dangerously; take things as they come; dread naught, all will be well.”

In the years to come, Churchill and the world would witness some of the most hellish torments that man could invent. Yet he— along with many of our ancestors— endured that pain as well. As horrible as it was, eventually all would be well again. Because like Epicurus says, nothing is unending. You just need to be strong and gracious enough to get through it.

And yes, of course nobody likes to feel pain. Why would they? It hurts. Yet, Bill Bradley, the basketball player and former US Senator is right: “There has never been a great athlete who did not know what pain is.” That can be expanded: There has never been a great person—just like Churchill in the example above—who did not experience pain and did not learn from it.

So the next time you feel pain—whether it’s a broken arm or a bout of depression or the sting of a rude remark—think about what a Stoic would say. They would say: I don’t like this, I wish it hadn’t happened but I am at least learning what pain is. I am exploring my tolerance for it. I am growing because of it.

The last thing you want to add to the equation is bitterness or blame or rage. “Anger always outlasts hurt,” is how Seneca puts it. It also distracts us from the opportunity. It also deprives us of the education we could have gotten in that moment.

And in closing, remember another line from Seneca: “Misfortune is virtue’s opportunity.” The military puts it more simply: “Embrace the suck.” Every stumble, every painful moment, every struggle, every missed chance, every foul-up—it’s all a moment in which you can practice calm, strength, fortitude, resilience. It’s all a moment to practice virtue. To be good, to be kind, to be patient, to be understanding, to be the person you say you’d like to be.

It won’t be easy. In fact, it will probably suck. But it will make you better.



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