Lesson from Walking in the Snow

The other day I decided to take a walk. It was raining a bit, so I wore my trench coat, and figured that a little rain wasn't going to melt me. I had a destination in mind, roughly two miles from my house. I set out, listening to a podcast, enjoying the freedom of just moving, just walking to walk.

After about half a mile the rain turned to snow. No big deal. Another few minutes and it was heavy snow. “Okay,” I thought, “I can cope.” by the time I was a mile from home, the wind picked up, driving the snow into my face and freezing my hands. “Now this is a big deal,” I thought. “I should probably turn back.”

But why? I was over halfway to my destination, and while there was nothing really driving me to reach my destination, I didn't really feel like turning back. So without fully understanding why, I kept going.

And I realized something. I hated this experience. I was cold. I was wet. The wind was blowing hard, there was nothing noble about my goal, or about the attainment of my goal. I was just doing it because I had misjudged the weather. I could have called my wife at any time to come pick me up. But I didn't want to. The snow was miserable, but it wasn't going to kill me. So I kept going. And it wasn't like I suddenly started liking it, but I was still somewhat cheerful, in spite of hating the snow. And as I kept going the idea formed: “I can go through things that I hate and not get grumpy about it.” I acknowledged the miserable feeling, summed it up in three simple words: “I hate this.” That feeling didn't go away. But it didn't have to control me.

Pain and discomfort, these are signals that something needs to change, something has caused or is causing me harm. But once I have acknowledged that the discomfort is manageable, that I do not need to alter my behavior to avoid harm, the pain can be dismissed. It's not easy of course. But I think we are good at this on some level. People who have to give themselves frequent injections or blood tests get more calm about the procedure. Not that it doesn't still hurt sometimes, it does. But we know that the pain is “ignorable”, that it doesn't indicate something we need to change, it's something that we need to endure in the service of a desired goal, and our mood doesn't have to be influenced.

So what about social pains? Ostensibly they arise from the same basic source: something bad has happened, we need to take care of it before it causes lasting harm to ourselves or others. But are there social pains that can or should be ignored?

I'm not sure. Perhaps we can say there are social pains that we can bear, acknowledging that they come from a real source, but that we are bearing them in the service of a positive outcome, just like we can bear the discomfort of an immunization shot in the service of avoiding a life-threatening illness.

Thoughts? Tell me about them!
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