For many of us, the pursuit of happiness is closely related to the numbing of pain. Vacations are as much about shutting off cellphones and not answering emails as they are about sunny beaches. Addictive behaviors are as much about escaping unwanted feelings as they are about the activity itself. The Bible itself even defines paradise in terms of the absence of pain – “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev. 21:4) So, in one sense, salvation is the absence of our present hurt.
Though there’s obviously no shortcut to experiencing salvation, I do believe God gives us resources to mitigate unnecessary hurt in this lifetime. One of these resources is his encouragement to “in humility, value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Phil. 2:3-4) A Christian at some point has to see that caring for others is not something we do merely because we’re naughty if we don’t, but because we’re blessed when we do.
In the early 1900s there was a Russian physiologist by the name of Alexei Ukhtomsky, whose main contribution to the scientific community was his “Principle of the Dominant Focus.” This principle stated that when it comes to the human nervous system, the brain can only focus on that which is causing the greatest stimulation. For instance, when it comes to pain, your brain doesn’t really register consciousness of two pains simultaneously though you may experience two separate pains simultaneously. So, let’s say you have a bad headache but you also recently sprained your ankle. If on a scale of 1 to 10, your headache is like a 6, but your sprained ankle is like a 3, that doesn’t mean that you’re experiencing pain at a 9. The pain reception doesn’t stack. Your brain would only focus on the primary stimulus, the headache pain, the 6. It’s all part of God’s brilliant design.
Now since there is one God who created this integrated physical, psychological, relational, spiritual world, the principles frequently overlap. You can’t register multiple pains simultaneously.
Consequently, while it may seem counterintuitive, the fastest way to overcome one pain would seemingly be to more deeply register a different pain. Furthermore, a unique characteristic of humanity is our ability to relate to the pain of other beings despite it not being our own personal pain. We call this empathy. Practically, what this means is that the most effective way for you to get over your own pain is … to occupy yourself with the pain of others. As you concern yourself with others ahead of self, you proportionately stop feeling so much pity for yourself. If you work to meet the needs of others you will feel proportionately less discontented. Empathy can help free you from your own pain.
As someone who has battled depression at various points throughout my life, I experientially know the deep self-focus often attached to the sadness. It’d be unfair to categorize everyone’s depression, so I’ll just speak for myself. I’ve never gotten depressed when I was deeply focused on the needs of others. I have gotten depressed focusing on my own wants and desires. I have gotten depressed constantly comparing myself to others. But taking God’s advice, “not looking to (my) own interests but…to the interests of the others”, has never created a period of overwhelming sadness for me.
Show me someone who’s obsessed with themselves, whether a high or low opinion of themselves, and I’ll show you a soon-to-be miserable soul. On the other hand, show me someone who’s so convinced of Christ’s providence and sufficiency that they’ve nearly forgotten about themselves, and I’ll show you someone who’s been liberated.
My primary evidence for this is none other than the Son of God himself. Jesus was the only truly other-focused person to ever walk the planet. In fact, in his last moments, at his most piercing pain, upon the cross, what kinds of things was Jesus crying out about? He reasonably could have been crying out about his head due to the crown of thorns, or his back due to the lashings, or the injustice due to the mistrials, or the betrayal and abandonment by his closest friends. But he doesn’t cry out about any of them. Instead, concerned about his mother’s well-being, he pointed her to his friend John and said, “Woman, here is your son now.” (John 19:26) Concerned about the souls of those who were crucifying him, he said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) All he could think about was someone other than himself. And because he thought about you and me instead of himself, our sins of self-obsession are washed away and can’t hurt us anymore.
The more the other-focused nature of our Savior melts our hearts, the more we become like him. Believe that because he was so obsessed with you, Jesus has done everything to take care of your eternal welfare. Believe that because he’s still so smitten with you, he constantly intercedes and works to take care of you. And if that’s true, then low and behold, you find yourself with all of this extra time and money and energy available for you to invest in the welfare of others.
Filling your calendar, your budget, and your mind with thoughts of others helps you imitate Christ and experience Christ (Eph. 5:1-2). But it will also numb some of the pain on the road to happiness.
NOTE: By encouraging an other-focus that helps alleviate personal pain, I’m not intending to be insensitive to those who are currently going through immense personal hurt. Of course someone in the ICU is going to struggle with physical pain. Of course someone who has recently lost a loved one will appropriately experience emotional turmoil. Of course there will be some pain in life that demands our attention. I’m merely making the case for the general truth that other-focusedness is not only a command, but a blessing from God. Processing pain involves information reception and communication. And in the same way that a human can only reasonably listen to one person in a conversation at a time, that same human brain can only focus on one dominant pain at a time. God’s commands are not arbitrary – they always have blessing attached.