Walking through fire

Why do intelligent, highly educated, often well-compensated people with the best of intentions end up doing things that make no sense? In other words, how do we stray off our path? Good question. I believe it must happen gradually, in small ways and in small moments, but like a trickle of water that beats away at a large stone, the small things add up. We have to become aware of the small things in our lives. We have to be willing to look at ourselves and face what is there. And we need to do this with the knowledge that our essence is good. But we must choose to be better.

So much of our culture is set up to give us ways to do everything possible to mask the pain. We are so afraid of pain, and have avoided it so systematically and for so long, that we have also lost the ability to really feel pleasure. We have forgotten that pain is just a feeling – an impermanent sensation that we can identify and deal with – just like pleasure. Instead, we believe the myths – ever so popular and pervasive – that life can and should be only about maximizing pleasure and avoiding pain. We literally go to great lengths to avoid pain.

I’m going to return to my favorite reality TV show, The Biggest Loser. It’s definitely part of the American media machine, and the show’s producers know that it is ultimately about entertainment – hence the long, drawn-out finale and hype of the grand prize of $250,000. They’ve got to sell ads, after all. But I’m talking about the symbolism, the essence of what I see on that show. I see people whose physical bodies reflect a lifetime of avoiding pain. They’ve avoided exercise. They’ve avoided feeling certain emotions, and instead stuffed them by eating sweets, fats, or other food not because they were truly hungry but in order to avoid pain. These contestants’ genetic makeup and prolonged lifestyle of avoidance led to an extreme physical manifestation of their chronic avoidance of pain. The transformation process involves admitting to the pain, and then confronting it on a daily basis, and learning new knowledge that will be applied as a new pattern for dealing with the pain. What we see from the contestants’ bodies are “morbidly obese people”. What I see is a reflection of what is inside all of us, and what we must tame if we are to take ownership of our lives and live by the power of our own human spirit, instead of being a slave to our human tendencies. Yes, I believe that within each of us is the potential for both great beauty and the unthinkably grotesque. It is up to us to face our individual challenges and to influence those around us, in order to create the experience of our dreams.

If we’re avoiding pain, it will show up in all areas of our lives. In the little petri dish of my school, I get to witness a small slice of our human tendencies. So much of the parenting I have seen – not just in my school, but across several geographic, demographic, and age groups – has defaulted to the pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding model. Where is the teaching? Have we decided that it’s unnecessary? Have we simply given up because of the pain of the struggle? Are we afraid of our own children? Have we decided to “outsource” the painful part to the nannies, coaches, teachers, and schools? Or have the endless messages of our culture finally permeated the deep recesses of our minds, to the point where we actually believe it? What is the excuse?

The practice that most fascinates and perplexes me is the extrinsic reward and bargaining model. When a child displays resistant behavior, parents default to negotiation. “If you do this, I’ll give you that.” This sets up an interesting dynamic, where the child learns to behave in a certain way only to receive a tangible object representing the parents’ approval. Intelligent children will quickly learn that the power and control is in their hands, and they will experiment with different behaviors to see what response they get. It becomes a game for them to see if they can get the adult to react. Quickly this becomes exhausting and frustrating for adults who were trying to establish “motivation” through this trickery. Maybe this is good training for becoming a high-level deal maker. There were times in my career as a venture capitalist when I wished I had had more training in negotiation.

We have a tendency to isolate children into activities “for children” – they get a separate kids’ menu, they spend time in isolation watching movies or playing video games (are they trying to emulate Mom and Dad on the computer?), they get their own fantasy world that is completely separate from any reality that their adults are dealing with. There is a hierarchy and separation between “what adults do” and “what kids do”, and we’ve lost the connection of our humanity – the common elements of our experience with pleasure and pain, and our process of learning – that binds us. I’m not suggesting that we adults are living a reality that would be appropriate for children to be involved in – although it would be interesting to ponder for ourselves why this is the case – but if we want the next generation to learn to be better, know better, act better, live better, then we ought to be asking those same questions of ourselves.

It is human to seek pleasure and avoid pain. But it is also human to have the capacity to train the mind and body to act, in spite of our fear of pain. It is human to have the capacity to change our habits. To walk through fire if necessary. We choose this path of growth, or an alternate path will be chosen for us. The growth path is a commitment to learn new possibilities about ourselves, and to investigate new patterns. It will involve facing the pain. We know this, acknowledge it, and still choose it anyway.

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