Can Fear and Cynicism Actually Cause Pain?

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Can Fear and Cynicism Actually Cause Pain?

March 23, 2009 Persuasion Popular 7

My wife is getting training in Hospice care.  She’s learning about the end of life issues that people deal with, and has an excellent teacher with much experience in this regard.  This is particularly relevant to us now, because my mother passed away recently and received hospice care at the end of her life.

A few evenings ago Lindea shared with me some of what she had learned earlier that day. And something she said really got my attention.  That’s because it had to do with pain.

I don’t like pain, will do almost anything to avoid pain, and take great pains to keep from suffering.  And there she was, talking about how some people, at the end of their life journeys, may be in great pain and suffer a long time for identifiable reasons. I’m not sure if I heard this right, but it sounded like she was saying that, first, one reason for end of life pain is holding on desperately to life out of the fear of dying.

“I don’t mind dying.  I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” – Woody Allen

I think of the heroic interventions of conventional medicine to prolong life and ask myself, why?  If there’s no quality of life possible for a person, why prolong it?  Why not just make people who are going to die as comfortable as possible and let them pass in peace?  The answer is, culturally and individually, many people have a profound lack of peace about dying.

My friend Will, in a different conversation that same day, told me that he thought he’d seen a statistic that 31% of Christians are terrified of dying.  (I’ve not checked for a study to back up that number. But it’s interesting as an idea, isn’t it?)  With all their belief about seeing the Lord and their family (and in some cases, their pets) in Heaven, such a statistic would seem to indicate that many of them are still afraid to go.

Paradoxically, I suppose, this is matched by some percentage of Muslim extremists who are eager to die and take as many people with them as possible. And there are many spiritual warriors in almost all sects and creeds, true believers who seem most eager to die for the glory of their beliefs.  But the point remains, and the fact of it.  I’ve met  plenty of people with a comprehensive story about the glory of the afterlife who are nevertheless terrified of going there.

Other terminal people, if I heard my wife correctly, suffer at the end of life because they have become cynical about life itself, having found no deeper meaning in their own.  At first this made no sense to me. I asked her, how would life having no meaning cause someone to suffer at the end of it?  Would it not be just the reverse?  And she explained that all the things people learn to do to numb themselves and distract themselves from a lack of meaning in their lives stop working at the end of life, and the collected/avoided/pent up/suppressed pain, heretofore held at bay (good heavens, I just used heretofore in a sentence!) is suddenly and overwhelmingly expressed.

She then challenged me, knowing how much I dislike pain.  “You’re not cynical are you?”  In part, her question was based on the way I can be dismissive of hype and hoopla, of declarations of faith (in matters both spiritual and mundane) ungrounded in my sense of reality and desire for truth.  I replied, “No, honey, but there are times and places where I’m skeptical.”

That’s the truth.  While I’m a hopeful person, and my life is filled with meaning, still I question the meaning I hear others give to people (anyone who claims to be enlightened!), places (any place that is special because it has special energetic properties) and things (trinkets and talismans endowed with nothing more than belief).  Whenever I hear anyone make a bold claim, like “This drink will heal all that ails you!,” or “Say the magic words and the genie in the sky will give you a bicycle,” or “Put all your money into this stock, you can’t go wrong!”) I say show me your evidence.  And I’ll be happy to see it if you can show it to me, though I’ll be skeptical that you can.  If I were cynical, I wouldn’t believe the evidence even if you could show it to me!  (As if you could! HAH!)

That conversation got me thinking about cynicism and the role it plays as an obstacle to positive change.  More in my next post, as I explore the interference of cynicism in positive change.  Until then, your feedback, comments and questions are always welcome.

Best wishes,



7 Responses

  1. Chris Witt says:

    A capital C Cynic is “an adherent of an ancient Greek school of philosophers who held the view that virtue is the only good and that its essence lies in self-control and independence.” A Cynic questions authority, convention, and reliance on wealth, position, or social standing. A small C cynic is “a faultfinding captious critic.” I wonder how over time Cynics became cynics.

    In its refusal to repeat conventional wisdom and to bow before the gods of established authority of any sort Cynicism would seem to be an aid to positive change. And cynicism, which questions everything without really wanting to get at the truth of anything, would be as you sugest an interference.

  2. J.D. Meier says:

    Great thought provoking post.

    Not that it’s the answer to everything, but I really like to test any of my beliefs with “what do I want to accomplish?” and “is it working”? I also like to ask, “if that assumption were true, what would that mean?”

    There are some thought patterns that can get in the way, but the beauty seems to be that even just knowing the patterns and antipatterns can help a lot.

    At the end of the day, what I found most helpful is simply testing my assumptions and being open to being surprised. A lot of my questions simply turn into “how can I test that?” and I challenge myself there. One of my more interesting tests was when I tested the law of attraction and blogged about it. I took down my blog at one point because the stories were just so ridiculous and I had an amazing string of fantastical events.

    While I don’t depend on anything that I can’t explain or prove, I try not to preclude myself from the unexplained. When push comes to shove and I have to place my bets, I bet on repeatable things … stuff that’s provable (if not explainable) over things that depend on might and magic.

    • @J.D. Meier,
      I want to hear about your test of ‘the law of attraction’! I’m there with you. I’m not ruling anything out, unless it has proven it’s worthlessness. But I’m not ruling certain things in unless there’s some proof that they deserve it!
      Thanks for the comment, J.D.

  3. J.D. Meier says:

    The problem with testing the the law of attraction is there’s this wide spectrum of possibilities.

    For example, I do think the RAS (reticular activating system) plays a big role in our *luck* by tuning our brain into a pattern matching machine for opportunities. I think we also get what we expect (good ol’ Pygmalian) and we get what we focus on. I think we create our own self-fulfilling prophecies by taking action towards something.

    I wasn’t really sure how to test so that was part of the fun but part of the problem. Weird things happened. To set the context, I started by naming the blog the billion dollar blog. I figured if I was going to ask for the Universe, might as well go whole hog. What I did was simply start paying attention to amazing coincidences. For example, a friend mentioned another friend we hadn’t seen in 5 years. When I got to work, he was in front of my building, out of the blue. In another instance, I was thinking how I hadn’t had orange muffins in years. When I got to work, there was free orange muffins in the kitchen. That made me say, “huh?!” The incident that bothered me the most though was when I was driving out of the parking lot, I thought it was odd that I had never witnessed an accident … and within 5 minutes, I saw my first one on our campus.

    I still track some of my coincidences, but I stopped blogging them. It seemed like the more I blogged them, the more they happened. I eventually theorized that intuitive pattern matching goes a long way. Sort of like “Blink” + Gary Klein’s “Sources of Power” in action.

    That said, I do think there’s a lot to be said for congruence. I think we get more when our thinking, feeling, and doing are on the same page.

  4. Woody says:

    This was an interesting post, until you get to the bit with the racist stereotype about Muslims.

    “Paradoxically, I suppose, this is matched by some percentage of Muslims who are eager to die and take as many people with them as possible.”

    If you don’t have a statistic about them, why use conjecture based on a stereotype? What do we learn in persuasive skills, relate to your audience…racistly?

    • Thank you Woody for your comment.

      I certainly did not intend to make a racist stereotype with my comment. I preceded that statement and followed it with statements meant to put that in perspective. It appears that I inadvertently left out a key word, ‘extremists,’ as in ‘Muslim extremists.’ (I’ve since fixed it, thanks to your valuable feedback!)

      However, you raise an interesting question. What is the percentage of the Muslim population that thinks that suicide bombing is an acceptable and even great idea? I’ve looked around and found a few items, like this one:

      “…the British Home Office itself conducted a four-volume survey of British Muslim attitudes in 2004. There are 1.6 million Muslims in Britain. The British government found that between 8 percent and 13 percent of British Muslims believed more suicide terrorist attacks against the United States and the West were warranted.” You’ll find the entire article here.

      The best article I’ve found is here. It says that support for these acts in the Muslim world is decreasing. I’m delighted, as I’m sure you are. It’s my opinion that across the board, the extremism encouraged by fundamentalist religions is based, in part, on a lack of appreciation for the value of critical thinking.

      Best wishes,

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