On Pain Repurposed

Apr 26, 2023 | Happiness, Loneliness, Self-Care, Self-Talk

Illustrated cover of a man in deep thought

There was a time when I believed the beautiful lie that everything happened for a reason.

In this conception of the universe, every feeling I experienced served some greater purpose that helped me escape the present moment with the promise of a brighter tomorrow. My pain diminished as I adopted a worldview cushioning my supposed healing path by veering from working with my deepest wounds. This life was an altruistic fantasy.

As I reflect on these years, please do not hear me diminishing the power of fantasies. They are purposeful. Fantasies help us survive the truths too burdensome to bear. They grip us, and we cling to them, accepting them like gravity and letting them rule over us so we can protect ourselves from the fear of what might happen if and when they shatter. Fantasies make pain fleeting, which helps us survive.

But escaping pain by burrowing in a fantasy does not equip us to work with the things we believe will destroy us if and when we give them space to breathe.

Time and again, my work with clients and gathering research on the emotional distress of our current times draws me back to what I consider is the analyst Wilfred Bion’s most fascinating question: What is the fate of pain? Pain has a path, like a vessel on a navigation chart, and a trajectory, like a trend line on a scatter plot. It contains some of our most valuable data, individually and collectively.

Pain stitches together the stories that form the fabric of who we are, our senses about our place in the world, and whatever laws we believe govern our universe. It shows us how we fail and how others fail us. Pain is pain, all the way around, without shortcuts or excuses. It stands alone without the need for a higher purpose.

But if we incorporate pain in our healing journeys, how can we avoid the fantasy thinking that leads us to believe everything happens for a reason?

The poet David Whyte describes our experience of pain as humanity’s most common and grounding, the “searing presence” that marks every life. The problem of a person or group giving purpose to another’s pain lies in how doing so erases the experiences of those dealing with extreme pain due to their mere existence in a world not made for them. I see ascribing greater meaning to pain as pushing the eject button to our lived experience. It hurts all of us in the long run and diminishes our capacity to sit with each other in our healing process.

When the fantasy wells run dry, the truth is that nobody knows what it is like to be you, to experience what you experience, to lose what you lost. Nothing indicates an intolerance for your wounding like a platitudinal band-aid.

Our lived experience of aloneness in our pain is what each of us shares in common, and because we are alone in the ways we hurt, we will never be lonely.

I suggest an alternative to the quest to attain pain’s fleeting ultimate purpose. No pain is purposeful, but we can repurpose pain into solidarity, the capacity to sit with another because we have learned to sit with ourselves. Granted, we each have a threshold, so we need to be gentle with ourselves as we increase our pain tolerance. Wounds need time, space, rest, expertise, and fresh air to heal. But repurposed pain is one of the most loving gifts we can offer someone else. Like a downed tree in a forest, pain’s aftermath can form a nursery log with bountiful promise for new life.

This potential does not happen by stamping pain with ultimate purpose but rather as we learn to work it and offer this courageous capacity to others. We need not pull the eject lever from our lived experience to sit with someone in theirs, letting them know we see them every step of the way.

This capacity to attend to others starts with tending to our wounds and giving ourselves plenty of time, space, and graciousness to heal as we learn to hope again.

So, may you learn patience as you process through pain. May you acknowledge its weight, particularity, and fate as part of your healing process. May you forgive yourself every time you succumb to whatever fantasy governs your world and allows you to alleviate pain. May you be gentle with your survival in every step you take closer to and away from healing. And when you are ready, may you care for those around you by offering them the courageous capacity you have in your pain repurposed for love.


  • Grotstein, J. S. (2018). But at the same time and on another level: Clinical applications in the Kleinian/Bionian mode. Kovacs.
  • Whyte, D. (2015). Consolations: The solace, nourishment, and underlying meaning of everyday wounds. Many Rivers Press.
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Written By Chris Curia

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