I love motorcycles. The energy, engine vibration, and rumbling exhaust. The sensations are diverse and bring surprises that touch each of the senses. One can taste the fields, anticipate the smells, and touch the world. If you can see too far, you are on the wrong road.
Modern motorcycle engines are sophisticated and hold power that can quickly kill. When properly ignited, fuel explodes within the cylinders and is mechanically transferred into forward movement. Within seconds you can be traveling a hundred miles an hour. It is such a thrill that Dan Aykroyd said “you do not need a therapist if you own a motorcycle, any kind of motorcycle.”
In opposition to movement and momentum, is friction. Beneath the chrome cylinder heads and beyond the chiseled exhaust pipes, friction works its magic. Friction wears down engine parts, is the cause of wasted energy, and becomes a burden at speed. Yet, without it, there would be no movement at all. Friction between the moving parts and the tires on the road are all necessary and essential.
Like motorcycles, we have an emotional engine, one that needs the right type of fuel. Our fuel is love, meaning, creativity, and acceptance. We prefer premium fuel but will often accept what is available: Many individuals will fill up at any available station.
Our engine also experiences friction. We give them names such as fear, shame, doubt and rejection. If friction is left unattended, the motorcycle will succeed for a limited distance until it overheats and seizes. Like mechanical friction, emotional friction cannot be eliminated.
Although it seems ideal to be without emotional friction, it’s impossible. Some parts of human suffering cannot be escaped. It is our nature to limit emotional pain, but we also must face it. As a result, it is more beneficial to learn how to dwell with suffering, rather than avoid it. The famous psychologist, Carl Jung, once acknowledged this fact when he exclaimed, “The root of all mental illness is the unwillingness to experience legitimate suffering.”
What does it mean to experience legitimate suffering and why should one do so? Clearly this does not mean we seek out the kind of trauma that wounds the soul. Rather, it means to become confident amidst the turmoil. In other words, how do I learn to be “ok” even when I suffer?
Over time I have observed that our attempts to escape suffering often exacerbates our symptoms. For example, avoiding or withdrawing from anxiety often strengths it’s power. This counter intuitive effect also increases the likelihood that one will keep avoiding in the future. This pattern is not exclusive to anxiety, but plays a role in a variety of psychological and emotional struggles. Despite the instinctual nature of avoidance, our reactions are based on the assumption that all emotional friction should be and can be eliminate.
Our unsuccessful attempts to eliminate friction also lead to feelings of inadequacy, depression and brokenness. I am reminded of a previous patient who was tall, intelligent, driven, and chronically suicidal. His engine included high revs and potent power. As his depression lingered, his view of himself became more distorted and harsh. Why was he incapable of eliminating it? What was he doing wrong? When medications and other short-term attempts to escape his mood did not work, he felt despair.
How was this possible from someone so bright? First, he assumed that to be successful and at peace, he must eliminate emotional friction. Second, he faced emotional pain only superficially because he believed that his depression meant weakness.
Friction is universal. It is found in the strongest and of human engines. It does not mean we are broken and it can cause more harm than good to “get rid of it.” The most potent lubricant for emotional friction is not the elimination of suffering, but the ability to thrive in it. Thus, giving friction less power.