Modern society has seen man reach the pinnacles of technological advancement, economic prosperity, and security. It has also fostered the weakest iteration of man in human history. As we grow further and further removed from the so-called “hard times” of our history, so goes our understanding of pain.
When you hear the word “pain” you may think of the physical pain when a child falls from their bike and fractures an arm, or perhaps the emotional pain felt when a loved one passes, both something our mind would rather avoid than embrace. But pain itself has a richer utility than we’ve been programmed to believe. It’s not something to practice avoidance of, but rather something to stare down and conquer.
Few people are as qualified to opine on the reality, and in turn the utility of pain, than Ernst Jünger. A famed German author and philosopher, his writing drew upon his experience fighting on the front lines of The Great War and enduring its brutality despite being wounded no less than seven times, Jünger experienced what many would consider more than enough pain to last several lifetimes.
But to experience pain is to know its value. Jünger’s 1934 essay On Pain is an astonishing glimpse into humanity’s relationship to pain and self-sacrifice while also serving as a timeless and perhaps prophetic critique of modernity, its interconnection with technology, and the weakness bred as a result.
People live in a “zone of sensitivity,” as coined by Jünger, where the ideas of pain, struggle, and adversity are stripped from the collective consciousness and replaced with security and comfort. This state of affairs has not changed since it was written in 1934—it has only been exacerbated. Today there is a ritualism in comfort, security, and safety, proclaimed as virtuous by those in power and embraced by newer generations who know nothing else. This was the reality during the past two years of lockdowns, safety mandates, and the over-sanitization (quite literally) of society. We view “progress” as stripping away any discomfort or struggle from our lives, hoping the result will be unconstrained prosperity.
The fatal flaw in this reasoning is the attempt to eliminate something that is not only unavoidable, but essential to the human experience. As Ernst Jünger describes, “Modern sensitivity relates to pain as a power to be avoided at all cost, because here pain confronts the body not as an outpost but as the main force and essential core of life.” This is where the higher truth of pain is acknowledged. Pain attacks the body, but the body itself is not everything. In a sense, pain provides a service: a permanent feedback mechanism that reveals to us our weaknesses and fears. To reach the height of our God-given potential, pain must be embraced.
In Ernst Jünger’s 102 years of life he endured the physical pain of viscous combat, the emotional pain of losing his son in WWII, and the intellectual battles that saw him become a renowned albeit controversial writer in the 20th century. This isn’t to say everyone must experience the atrocities of war or substantial loss to eliminate weakness, but absent pain, we are reduced to living in a shallow bubble—merely existing, not living.
You must find your own path, but embrace pain along the way. Invite pain by doing hard things that scare you. Test your limits. Train your body so that it will grow stronger. Train your mind so that you can accomplish what you once thought you could not. Confront your emotions so that you can learn to control them. Understand the utility of pain to understand what you’re capable of. I write this not just for you, but also for myself. It’s a difficult path. Do your best to stay the course.
“Nothing is more certain and unavoidable than pain; it resembles life’s inescapable shadow or a gristmill grinding the grain ever finer and with ever more incisive rotations.”
Ryder Selmi is a Strategist at Beck & Stone. A native son of New Hampshire, he lives in the city of Boston.