Happiness in this World

Reflections of a Buddhist physician

Removing a Splinter

The importance of choosing to suffer pain

Photo: SuperFantastic
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Two weeks ago, my son came home from nursery school with a splinter in his palm. It was so small, though, I wasn't sure if it was really there.

"It's there," my wife said.

She'd tried to squeeze it out before I'd come home but had only succeeded in hurting him terribly. He'd shrieked and cried and tears had poured down his face. When I looked at it (he gave me his palm only reluctantly), I saw a small area of swelling around a tiny black dot.

"I'm not sure I see a splinter," I said to my wife.

"It's there," she replied.

"Let's wait until tomorrow to let the swelling go down," I said.

So we did. The next morning, however, though somewhat reduced, the area was still swollen. So we began discussing the need to pull it out.

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"No!" my son exclaimed.

We looked at one another helplessly. We had little choice, but he was having none of it. We tried reasoning with him. He wouldn't budge (of course). Then we promised him a special treat: a lollipop (we have no shame).

Timidly, he handed me his palm. I probed gently with some tweezers.

"I'm still not sure there's anything there," I said.

"It's there," my wife repeated. (Mothers, I'm now embarrassed to admit, always know about splinters.)

Without warning, my wife squeezed my son's palm around the tiny black speck again and my son howled in pain. Tears again poured from his eyes. I stared at my wife open-mouthed as she tried to comfort him. "You have to warn him!" I hissed. She looked at me guiltily.

Ten more minutes of attempting to coax his palm back into my hand, of course, did no good. So against his protests, as gently as I could, I pinned his palm and applied the tweezers. He cried and yelled, "Daddy! Daddy! Please don't!" My heart breaking, I pulled—and a small black splinter slid out.

"We got it!" I exclaimed. "We got it!"

His tears drying, a small smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, our congratulations ringing in his ears over and over again, we celebrated by indulging him in not one, not even two, but in three lollipops in a row.

And though the day ended in triumph, the process got me thinking (you know me). This was one of my son's earliest introductions to the fact that sometimes pain is actually necessary. We all know life is inherently painful, but when most of us acknowledge this, we're mostly thinking about unavoidable pain, pain that comes to us despite our best efforts to avoid it. Far less often do we acknowledge to ourselves that sometimes pain must be willfully chosen.

But our failure to acknowledge this necessity often causes far more pain in the long run. It prevents us from grieving our losses properly, submitting to uncomfortable medical tests and treatments, and removing splinters. In fact, our ability to endure necessary pain and to delay gratification in general has been shown to be more strongly correlated with success than high IQ or even educational level. Resilience of this kind may, in fact, be the key to happiness.

It's something, at any rate, I must teach my son, that when pain is necessary we must face it courageously. He's still too young to appreciate the importance of this intellectually, but not too young to take his cues from me. So when I got my flu shot this year, I was honest with him about how much it hurt. But I took it with a smile and didn't flinch.

"Do you like shots?" he wanted to know.

"No," I told him. "But I get them anyway."

 

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to visit Dr. Lickerman's home page, Happiness in this World.

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

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