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Common sense tells us that people naturally seek pleasure and avoid pain, but common sense is wrong. Pain is rarely a deterrent from destructive behavior. Sometimes the greater the pain, the more fiercely someone will cling to it. We see this on many fronts, from domestic abuse (when battered spouses repeatedly return to their abuser) to the Iraq conflict (where militias seem willing to slaughter each other until no one is left standing). Our addiction to pain is one of the toughest problems to solve in human psychology.

The ingredients of the addiction are rooted in consciousness, the twists and turns of hidden motivations and beliefs. Masochism — needing pain in order to feel pleasure — is rarely a prime factor, in my experience. Rather, there’s a stickiness to pain that overrides the physical and mental discomfort that pain obviously causes. By stickiness I mean the following:

Habit — I’m used to my pain; it’s too hard to change.

Victimization — I’d like to be out of pain, but I’m too weak. Somebody stronger is responsible.

Revenge — If I make you hurt more than I do, it’s worth it.

Numbness — I don’t feel anything, so I must not be hurting.

Religion - God wants me to feel this pain — and you, too.

Ideology — My pain is worthwhile because it serves a higher purpose.

Shame — I’d rather hurt than have others find out who the real me is.

Guilt — Punishment is the redress to my past wrongs.

Since all of us contain, to one degree or other, all these factors in our hidden — or not so hidden — makeup, we have no cause to point fingers. The Iraqi civil war seems totally perverse because both sides would benefit from peace more than they benefit from mutual destruction. Yet the same applied in the American Civil War and WW I. War isn’t so much insane as addictive. During the Cold War the prevailing idea was that the U.S. and the Soviet Union needed to build huge arsenals of atomic weapons until the point of “mutually assured destruction” was reached. Yet instead of insuring peace, mutually assured destruction is exactly what spurs the pain-addicted on. Relationships end in catastrophe, environments are destroyed, genocides occur, dictators run amok — in all these cases our rational side tells us that nobody can win, yet that doesn’t prove to be a deterrent.


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