What is the opposite of pain?

Most people would reply, "Pleasure."

But that is incorrect. The opposite of pain is "no pain" – i.e., comfort. Confusing comfort with pleasure leads to decadence, a life filled with escaping and running away from the pain and effort required to live a fulfilling life.

Pain is the price we pay for real, lasting pleasure. As the saying goes, “No pain, no gain.” We need to learn how to accept pain, which is what “kabbalas hayissurim” means, in order to build a loving marriage, succeed in a career, grow in Torah, and perfect our character.

The prevalent pursuit of comfort has created the Peter Pan Syndrome, where adults refuse to grow up and assume the responsibilities of adulthood, preferring to live a carefree, responsibility-free life. Rather than debate the merits of having a large family versus having a small family, many people are choosing to not have any children at all; they question the need to marry altogether. This approach may spare them a significant amount of pain and effort, but it will also rob them of some of the most significant and deepest pleasures available to mankind.

This kind of decadence contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire. After creating the strongest military force in the ancient world and building a massive empire, the Roman populace lost its will to fight. The army could no longer recruit enough soldiers, because the people desired comfort and were unwilling to invest the enormous effort required to fight for the empire’s survival. Left with no choice, the army hired mercenaries who had no loyalty to Rome. These mercenaries eventually turned on their Roman employers, toppling the empire.

Pain is the Price of Pleasure

Real pleasure is inseparable from pain. For example, what would you say is your parents' greatest source of pleasure?

That's right: you.

What would you say is your parents' greatest source of pain?

The same answer: you.

It's no accident that your parents' greatest source of pleasure is also the source of their greatest pain. Because the greater the pleasure, the greater the effort required to attain it.

Pain is necessary for attaining pleasure. The gratification one experiences upon reaching the summit of a mountain comes about through the incredibly difficult challenge of climbing it. A task that requires only a minimum amount of exertion – like taking a helicopter to the top of the mountain – yields a far lesser degree of fulfillment.

The greater the effort we expend to achieve a goal, the more we enjoy reaching it. As our Sages say, "L'fum tzaara agra – according to the effort is the reward" (Pirkei Avos 5:22). The businessman who started with nothing and through enormous toil and sacrifice transformed his business into a burgeoning empire is proud as a peacock and enjoys recounting his early struggles in opening his first store. His son, who was born into prosperity, cannot understand why Dad gets so much pleasure from recalling his rise from his humble beginnings.

L'fum tzaara agra is one of the reasons why Torah can only be mastered through ameilus, through toiling in learning. The exertion required to study and understand the Torah enables us to appreciate and internalize its wisdom. If it came on a silver platter, it would be easy come, easy go.

We can even learn to take pleasure in the pain itself. That is part of the draw for thousands of people who do the Polar Bear plunge in middle of the winter, taking a swim in freezing bodies of water. If they want to go for a swim, there are plenty of heated pools available! The pleasure comes through toughing it out.

The ability to accept pain can also drive people to run a marathon and complete it no matter what, even if they are among the last ones to finish, long after the judges have gone home. They take great pride in not giving up and showing that they have what it takes to endure.

There Is No Running Away from Effort

It is an illusion to think you can run away from pain. You are going to pay no matter what, either in winning or in losing. If you think you can avoid the pain of taking finals, then you are stuck with the pain of being a failure. Ultimately, the pain of trying to succeed is less painful than the pain of quitting, which will haunt you for the rest of your life. During tough situations, remember: "Pain is passing, results are lasting."

Sometimes it is the fear of pain that stops us in our tracks. But more often than not, the fear of pain is worse than the pain itself.

What happens when you take a five-year-old child to the doctor for a flu shot? If the doctor shows the child the needle, he fights like a wildcat, and it takes a staff of three nurses to hold him down. The best way to administer the shot is to give the child something fascinating to play with, and then, while he is busy with the toy, to have the doctor come up from behind and do the injection.

The fear creates the panic; the shot itself barely registers.

Don't let your fear of pain restrict you. Make a list of things you would like to do, if you weren’t so afraid to try. Perhaps you want to get up half an hour earlier but are afraid it will make you too tired. Or perhaps you want to write that book, ask for a promotion, take horseback riding lessons, give a Ted talk, or finish Shas.

Now articulate what exactly is your fear. What are you afraid will happen? And then tackle your fear using reason. For example, you have been asked to speak at the reunion of your graduating class and you are petrified to say yes. What is the worst that can happen? They will be bored. Will anyone take out rotten tomatoes and throw them at you? And what is likely to happen? Chances are no one will even be listening! Looking at your fears objectively, with reason, can dispel much of their bite.

Fear of Reality

One of the biggest fears people have – a fear that is crucial to overcome – is the fear of facing up to life’s challenges and conflicts. People would rather live in denial than wake up to reality.

Why? Because if reality turns out to be something different from what we're used to, it means we have to change, and that makes us uncomfortable. How open are you to being shown that you are wrong? To hearing that one of your children needs real help, and that the way you are dealing with the situation is ineffective? To being told that you should reach out to unaffiliated Jewish neighbors on your block by inviting them for a Shabbos meal and offering to learn with them?

When we encounter threatening information, our kneejerk response is to erect a protective wall to deflect it and defend ourselves. In psychological parlance, this is called cognitive dissonance. We need to resist this desire to shield ourselves from the facts, no matter how much they upset our equilibrium, because if we bury our heads in the sand, it will hurt a lot more when reality finally confronts us – especially if it is too late to do anything about it.

Keep Your Eye on the Ball

One of the best ways to get rid of pain is to forget about it and focus instead on the pleasure.

Imagine a team of basketball players running around the court and pushing themselves to the limit, just to score a basket. Do they notice the physical pain they're feeling? Barely. The pleasure of playing and scoring overwhelms their significant discomfort. They’re having a great game.

Now, what would happen if you asked them to conduct the following experiment: "Play basketball as you would normally – run, jump, dribble, shoot, and defend. But this time, do it without the ball."

How long do you think they could play? Maybe five minutes. Because without the ball, there is nothing to distract them from the pain. Their entire focus is now on the physical exertion; every step becomes a major effort.

But if you give them back the ball, they'll easily play for another hour!

In life, we need to learn to keep our eye on the ball. Focus on the pleasure, not the pain. Focusing on the pain is guaranteed to fill your life with misery. Have you ever spent time with someone like this? You are enjoying a wonderful picnic with the family on a beautiful day, but someone forgot the salt. “Where’s the salt?” Focusing on what’s wrong or missing undermines the 98% that is good. No matter how fantastic the experience is, the person who sees the negative feels shortchanged.

Imagine a little boy playing with his friends. He falls down, scrapes his knee, and begins to cry. But when his friends call out, "Crybaby!" he quickly pulls himself together and goes back to the game.

An hour later, the child comes home, walks through the door, shows his mother his knee – and immediately bursts into tears! His focus determines his reaction.

Many relationships sour for the same reason. Rather than focusing on the positive, people look at the negative.

Learn to focus on the goodness amid the pain, and you'll discover the maximum pleasure that life can offer.

Applied Wisdom

  • Make a list of the things that you are afraid of. Articulate the fear and scrutinize it, using your ability to reason. Pick an item on the list, accept the pain it involves, and set out to tackle it.

  • Where in your day do you confuse comfort with pleasure? How does this confusion ultimately rob you of pleasure?

  • Of which accomplishments are you most proud? Describe the exertion and difficulties involved in achieving them.

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