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Treasures of pain

Pain into profit.

Pain into profit.

I've been reading what I think is the seventh book of Glen Cook's Chronicles of the Black Company - a truly bizarre, sometimes unintelligibly complex fantasy series, because I've been weirdly captivated by the genre since devouring the Game of Thrones books ...

Anyway, that was a needlessly complex and irrelevant explanation of the fact that, while reading, I came across a sentence in which Cook described the price a group of soldiers would pay for some betrayal - saying it would cost them "treasures of pain".

I like that phrase. It reminded me of something the comedian Steve Martin once said in an interview - and I'm paraphrasing because I can't find the quote online - in which he described one of the benefits of being an actor and writer as that "we turn our pain into profit".

Having written two novels, The Lost Boys and Hello Darkness, about a superbly messed-up anti-hero named Ned Jelli, I can understand what Martin means.

My work, both in fiction and on this blog, has given me ample opportunity to tap into the sadness, confusion, loneliness, jealousy, anger and hurt that we all experience from time to time - and to make a living out of it.

I'm not kicking it in a $6.65 million mansion like Martin but I do pay the rent via the written word, largely on my own terms, which is more than most writers can boast (and for which I am humbly grateful).

My father was a writer and journalist too, mainly for newspapers, but he did pen a lot of great short fiction for various magazines and wrote an unpublished novel about apartheid entitled An Ancient Wrong, which I have sitting on my bookshelf.

My mum - who divorced my dad when I was aged two - once said of my father that he "only wrote well when he was unhappy" and that he seemed to give it up altogether when he married his third wife because he was "content".

Ain't that a depressing thought?

Personally, I do my best work when I'm happy. The bulk of both my novels were written while dreamily in love with two different women - but both are works about unhappy men. 

Anyway, I started thinking about how other people might spend their "treasures of pain" if they didn't happen to be a writer, actor, artist - and it struck me that there is always value in true suffering.

I think one of the mixed messages of culture is the constant assumption pain is a bad thing, that we should numb it either through medication, party drugs or distractions, rather than "walking through the fire".

I know plenty of people who'll do anything to avoid pain in their lives and, you know what? It messes them up.

The great Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung once wrote that "neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering", a sentiment I'm sure Steve Martin would agree with.

In his movie Shopgirl, adapted from his novella of the same name, Martin puts it simply: "It's pain that changes our lives."

I reckon we all have treasures of pain; hopefully you'll spend yours wisely.

Sam de Brito's latest novel Hello Darkness is in bookstores now. You can follow him on Twitter here. His email address is here.

41 comments so far

  • WIthout the sad and painful times we forget how good things can be.
    That day after a period of sadness and hardship where everything is just that little bit brighter, walking around is not like moving through treacle and when the act of breathing is easy and not a chore is quite amazing.
    I know that I am not a good person when I am in the pained frame of mind. I am a neglectful friend, an unproductive employee and I become a hermit and hide away from the world.
    If someone can make use of their pain then good for them. I am not one of those people.

    needing a good long nap
    Date and time
    February 15, 2012, 6:50PM
    • Shouldn't this article have the Lifeline number appended?

      On topic: I know that when I'm suicidal, it's not just sadness, it's self-loathing. That sort of pain doesn't give a way out, except the obvious, assuming one can't change the aspect of oneself that one hates. Of course, the pain itself makes you behave worse than otherwise, which helps not at all.

      Mr Teufel
      Date and time
      February 15, 2012, 7:22PM
      • There is making art from pain, and there is making an art of pain. The first an honourable pursuit, and if profit comes along for the ride, three cheers, a shout and a group hug to embrace the healing. The second, I think you coined it when discussing James Altucher. "Wow, you're a dickhead, no more, you're blanked."

        Date and time
        February 15, 2012, 9:17PM
        • To hell with pain. It comes around often enough. I now live entirely for pleasure, although I must confess some of my best friends are committed masochists, either emotionally or physically. I'm not sure which of us is the most "messed up."
          I think probably the Buddhist.

          Big Dan
          Date and time
          February 15, 2012, 10:57PM
          • Pain informs us something is wrong.

            Anyway, the most I associate with this article is those annoying people who think grieving is bad and should be medicated. It's not appropriate to have to tell someone: "I'm not depressed; my dad died a couple of weeks ago and I'm grieving."

            Date and time
            February 16, 2012, 2:14AM
            • You're probably not grieving in the right, socially acceptable way.

              hired goon
              Date and time
              February 17, 2012, 8:02AM
          • Agree - though only to a point. Different things affect different people....differently. What might be water off a duck's back to some, could be the apocalypse for others. Know any suicides over a broken relationship?

            And I suspect the 'pain' the subject of this blog only goes to a certain end of the spectrum: as in things like famine, rape, brutalisation, genocide, displacement etc are excluded: there is no 'treasure' there.

            Seriously, I'm not belittling the concept because I am sure the reaction by most to the last part above would have been: 'oh well - of COURSE not'. And then others would have been inclined to add to the list which others wouldn't think belonged at that end of the spectrum. What about clinical depression? Is that a treasure?

            Which then get's you to thinking: well is it really that bad? Does our personal experience of 'suffering' patronise those that truly are?

            OK - off for a run along the beach...

            Date and time
            February 16, 2012, 8:15AM
            • I used to use my anger as fuel. My inner yearnings, burnings and frustrations helped to bronze me both on the inside and outside.

              You can use all the adversities in your life as the excuse to be a loser, or the reason to become a success.

              Date and time
              February 16, 2012, 8:41AM
              • Sam you're onto something here. I went through a bad divorce five years back. (Are there any nice ones?). It hurt due to unfaithfulness and loss of my financial place in life through housing.

                It's taken me a good long while to deal with this and a number of beautiful women who have both enhanced my life and being, and hurt me since.

                I haven't got it all figured out just yet, but my life in contrast to five years ago and even in contrast to the last five years of marriage, is such a better place to be now. I'm a firm believer it has been through embracing the desire and drive to change things that the pain told me I needed to change, that has bought me here.

                Date and time
                February 16, 2012, 8:53AM
                • I think pain is different from despair, though the latter can result from the former. Pain is often something that part of us knows can be overcome, whereas despair implies the futility of struggling against unbeatable agony. Pain can be useful, but despair isn't.

                  I think all learning experiences are rooted in either pain or pleasure. If you go through life happy all the time then you're only learning half of what you can.

                  Mind you, this is coming from a guy who has basically experienced nothing cruel or evil in his life - I've never seen my home burned or had somebody close to me badly hurt or tormented (killed, yes, but that was mercifully instant), I've never yet known the despair of disease or even the pain of being outcast from the people I love. So all things considered, I guess it's absurdly pompous for me to be going "pain can be useful" when there's probably a hundred thousand tumour-ridden wretches in hospital beds who'd happily trade their pain for my ignorant happiness.

                  On a side note, Sam, if you're willing to step a little further into the fantasy genre, try The Farseer Trilogy (first book Assassin's Apprentice) by Robin Hobb. The titles sound a bit lurid but they are human, heartbreaking, and leave you cold at the end. Best ending to a fantasy trilogy I've ever read - at least until Martin finishes his series, anyway.

                  Date and time
                  February 16, 2012, 9:08AM

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