“stay with the pain, don’t shut this out

October 3, 2021
Scene from Fight Club - This is a Chemical Burn

Halfway through the movie Fight Club there’s a scene were Tyler Durden intentionally burns the Narrator’s hand, while making a point about sacrifice and mortality.

This part of the movie might seem shocking or unnecessarily absurd. But to me—whether intentionally or not—this scene illustrates the nature of human suffering in response to physical or emotional signals we call “pain”. When the pain is excessive, persistent, and void of purpose or hope, we suffer.

When experiencing pain (especially emotional pain), we often try to shut it out. Ignore it, numb it, drown it out with vices and distractions. Which then only buries our pain beyond the reaches of consciousness, giving it an environment to grow and thrive in the dark.

As Carl Jung said famously, “what you resist, persists”.

In the scene, once the narrator becomes present with the pain in his hand, the suffering ends. The pain is reduced to a sensation, a signal in the brain. He sits with the pain. Completely present, actively and consciously FEELING the sensation in his hand. Not judging it good or bad, not weaving a narrative around it. Just sitting with it.

I think this is a good strategy. In bouts of anxiety and even in the throes of depression, just sitting with the pain is remarkably therapeutic. When we do this, for just a moment, we step outside the loud echo chamber of the mind and into the present moment. We lay down the script, the story we tell ourselves of what the pain “means”, and instead we sit in the sun and just be.

And sometimes that little shift in perspective is all we need to change everything.

Yeah yeah, I know Fight Club caught a bad rap after 20 years of wannabe nihilist college bros swagger-jacking Tyler Durden to get laid. I still like it. To me, there’s no work of art that more accurately depicts the primal frustration of living as a man inside the emasculating consumer culture of modern western civilization.

I really hope Chuck Palaniuk and David Fincher collaborate on more films in the future. Chuck’s voice and David’s vision is a magical combination.

If you’re interested, here is also a great video by Wisecrack about the Philosophical themes in the movie.