Is the denial of pain the denial of potential? A response to Mark Manson

Mark Manson tweeted something recently that’s been nagging at me. The sign of a good tweet.

To deny pain is to deny our own potential


Aphorisms like this have a lot of power on social media because, by virtue of how ambiguous they are, every reader can ‘see themselves’ in them. Super likable. Very shareable.

On the face of it, it sounds like just a different way of saying “no pain, no gain” — a truism with which very few would disagree.

But is what Manson says here simply a restatement of the fact that there is no growth without struggle? Or is it actually claiming something else? And if it’s claiming something else, is it right?

Don’t get me wrong. I like Mark a lot. I’ve read his book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and I recommend it. There’s just something about this tweet (which I think is also a quote from his book) that, to me, doesn’t seem quite right.

The problem is that it’s unclear whether the issue is the denial of SOME pain or of ALL pain. If SOME pain, then the expression may be true, but only trivially so. It’s not actually useful until ‘pain’ is qualified either in terms of kind, degree, or both. If it is ALL pain, then it is clearly untrue because it is very easy to think of an example of pain which, if not denied, would absolutely interfere with the realization of one’s potential.

Athletes know that some pain is valuable for improving performance, but they also know that there are some kinds of pain that, if not denied, can be career ending.

This is different from saying “no pain, no gain” because in that case all it means is that no gain of any kind is possible without at least some pain.

I think what bothers me the most about Manson’s tweet is it’s ambiguity (what does ‘pain’ mean? what is our ‘potential’?) and the fact that it also involves human action (‘denial’), the meaning of which is contingent upon the meaning of those other ambiguous terms. In other words, the conceptual weight of the expression is simply not sufficient to justify a clear and specific meaning.

Okay, but who cares, right?

What worries me here is not that Mason’s quote is ambiguous, but that it’s ambiguity is one that I desperately want to resolve. Even if only trivially true in itself, there’s still value in Manson’s tweet because it underlines the importance of arriving at an understanding of each of its terms. Only if we know what it means to realize our potential and what pain is can we know the relation between those two things the the role we play in mediating them.

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