By Brian Burger
The intrepid group of superheroes dove headlong deep into the caverns of pain. The villains had lured them here to trap them in a dangerous web built of good and noble intentions. The heroes looked like something straight out of a comic book and they worked as a team to hunt down their enemies, avoiding all forms of distractions thrown their way, even those that glinted with gold, silver and precious gems. In the end, the villains failed and the heroes overcame their pain and sacrifices to enjoy the satisfaction that comes from accomplishing a difficult goal together.
Ironically, the people driving the actions and dialogue of those courageous and determined icons of justice and goodness were actually plain ordinary people like you and me. They were avoiding life’s real challenges, instead skillfully and bravely tackling fake conflicts in a shared computer game called City of Heroes. Indeed, I named the “toon” I play in that group “Void Dance” as a constant reminder to myself of the reason I play.
If only real life were as easy as the virtual world, where diverse people from all over come together with a common purpose in co-operative teams to take on the world’s toughest, most painful problems. Instead, we have those who feel powerless acting out their power fantasies online with no impact on the very real threats and opportunities. The virtual life, though rewarding for a short period of time, cannot compare to the sense of accomplishment, pride and joy brought to us by living and loving in the real world as we were intended. So why do people play these games? Why do some become so addicted to them? Is it a form of giving up on life? Is it just a brief respite from what can seem like a harsh and cruel reality? This article won’t go into the nature of addiction, adrenalin or the very real-feeling emotional connections made online. But I do think that this is one more example of symptoms related to avoidance.
The fact is, real life relationships and interactions can be very emotionally charged, even painful. Our bodies are programmed to avoid pain. In fact, pain can be defined as a collection of warning signs from the body that something needs your attention right now! The old vaudeville joke goes something like, “Doctor it hurts when I raise my arm. Can you help me?” Of course I can… Stop raising your arm!” Well usually, when we experience pain we stop doing whatever we think is causing it as fast as we can. There is a certain amount of good sense in that.
However, This avoidance can lead us toward even more pain. One of my favorite quotations comes from R. D. Laing: “There is a great deal of pain in life and perhaps the only pain that can be avoided is the pain that comes from trying to avoid pain.”
Whether your distractions take the form of alcohol, movies, reading, obsessive hobbies, or recreational drug use, it’s the fact that you are missing out on real life out there that is the real tragedy. What turns hobbies, entertainment and other forms of respite into avoidant behavior can be measured by negative consequences of inaction, opportunities missed and relationships left without nurturing.
Perhaps we do have something to learn from our “toons” after all. Those qualities we admire in them: courage, diligence and the ability to overcome their pain through sacrifice and teamwork; these are all abilities we have been given. We have all the bravery we need inside us to see even painful tasks in front of us clearly. We can gracefully take the steps necessary to live in the real world with all of it’s unfairness and inequities. And we can do it without causing unnecessary pain for others or ourselves. By all means don’t go out looking for pain. And if you can simply “stop doing that” then stop. If, however, you are tempted to avoid looking at a problem squarely and catch yourself playing “Void Dance” too much, then it’s time. Time to look inside and find the courage you were given and walk forward into the light. That’s when you dive into the pain and stop trying to dodge the matter. Pain is temporary; life lessons are permanent. This very simple concept transformed my life. May you remember your inner courage as well.
I’ll leave you with a quote from Mary Tyler Moore: “Take chances, make mistakes. That’s how you grow. Pain nourishes your courage. You have to fail in order to practice being brave.”