The problem of Pleasure and Pain

I will let this post get a little personal. In about two months, I will start my fourth and final year of veterinary school. In about two and a half months, I will get married. To prepare, my fianceé and I have been meeting with a married couple to receive pre-marriage counseling. The reason for this is now becoming more clear to me.

Whenever I am talking with someone and say I am getting married soon, they are very eager to give advice. “Communication is key to avoid misunderstanding”, “pick your battles wisely”, and “happy wife, happy life”. Those all seem very wise and as if they are common sense. And yet, in the United States at least, over 50% of marriages end in divorce, and probably even more wish they could. Is it simply a matter of people not following their own advice? Is it just bad advice? Clearly the majority of people are doing something wrong.

One topic we discussed at our pre-marriage counseling was the fact that when two people come together and marry, at least two things can happen. First, the couple can squelch one other, becoming each others’ balls-and-chains. Each person is still operating as an individual, and as such, each individual’s will is fighting the other, beating it down. The best they can hope for is their their wills, personalities, and dreams will have them moving comfortably side-by-side at a relatively even pace; or, if not directly side-by-side, at least in the same compass direction.

The second option is the two people somehow merge into one new person. It is much harder for this new entity to divide itself and two halves diverge from one another. It is too much to believe that this arrangement, while acknowledging that there will be bad times and pain, is actually a good thing, and not merely neutral at best? In an example of logic which goes against common sense, each person in this union will become MORE of who they are, not less; it is the striving of the individuals in first option to maintain their individuality which results in them losing who they were before the marriage. Rather than simply trying to maintain a “happy wife”, for fear of an unhappy wife, this second couple actually is able to grow and develop together as a couple should.

The conclusion we seemed to reach in the conversation, and where I turn this post to veterinary medicine, is that ordering your decisions based on the principle of avoiding pain will, in the end, result in pain.

Pain made me think of my time sitting in the classroom at veterinary school, for some reason. My actions usually seem to be motivated by my desire to avoid pain. When studying for an exam, I think, “I can resume enjoying normal life after this exam.” Then, it becomes, “I can resume normal life during my next school break.” My general plan in vet school now seems to be to get these four years over with as fast as I can so that I can resume living my life after I graduate. Unfortunately, time seems be moving at 60 seconds per minute. And, I forgot about loans, which I will have to begin paying back after graduation, but surely I will live after those are paid for…


If you simply stay in your shell, you don’t go very far.

Very soon I seem to have little life left to live.

Trying to avoid pain is like trying to obey the command “Don’t think about a pink polar bear.” You’re doomed to fail. Instead of simply trying to avoid something negative you have to turn your focus to seeking something positive.

This conversation from our pre-marriage counseling reminds me of veterinary school, but it also reminded me a passage from a book by C.S. Lewis, titled Surprised by Joy. He is a much better writer than me, so I will let him talk about this topic:

…I was also, as you may remember, one whose negative demands were more violent than his positive, far more eager to escape pain than to achieve happiness, and feeling it something of an outrage that I had been created without my own permission.

This was the line I remembered, and wanted to share to sum up the point, but then I read the next lines and felt they also related scarily close to veterinary medicine, and I have to share them:

To such a craven the materialist’s universe had the enormous attraction that it offered you limited liabilities. No strictly infinite disaster could overtake you in it. Death ended all. And if ever finite disasters proved greater than one wished to bear, suicide would always be possible.

Is it really so simple? Is the problem of suicide in the profession really due to the fact that veterinarians are being trained to avoid the pain of studying, the pain of debt, the pain of seeing animals sick dying, the pain of not being unable to help every animal and person who walks through your door…but never learn how to achieve happiness?

I don’t want to leave this post on a negative note with no coherent answer to this question. As you recall, there are two paths people take when they get married. And most people seem to choose the wrong one. That does not mean that there isn’t a right one.

Thought of the Week:
How do you make decisions?

avoid pain
seek pleasure
some healthy combination of the two
??? (post in comments)


2 thoughts on “The problem of Pleasure and Pain

  1. Thank you for being honest – this doesn’t get any easier as time passes. I don’t have answers either, but I think it helps to know you’re not alone.


    • Thanks for your comment. I hope one day it will get easier in some sense- maybe circumstances don’t change, but it will be a lighter burden to bear nonetheless.

      Maybe I was too subtle in my last sentences- I actually DO think there is an answer, in the same way that there is a right way to have a good marriage that doesn’t involve simply tolerating your spouse.


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