Pain vs. Harm

Today I would like to explore an important distinction that I have shared with students, with their parents, and with colleagues over the years: the difference between pain and harm.

Many moments in life involve pain.  Physical injuries, the loss of loved ones, heartbreak, disappointment, and adversity are just a few examples of painful experiences.  Pain and harm, however, do not always coincide. This can confuse us.

Not everything that is painful is harmful.

For example, the pain in our muscles after dance rehearsal or soccer practice indicates that we have stressed our muscle fibers, and that they will soon heal and be stronger than before.  If, in sympathy, a loved one were to massage our sore flesh, we might cry out in pain…then beg the person to continue. The pain of the massage gives way to our circulatory system’s washing away of the lactic acid from our muscles.

When we hurt emotionally, we can also benefit.  We learn to cope, and we learn from mistakes. Often we learn that disappointment is temporary.  Sometimes we learn that we must endure discomfort, that we must sacrifice, for a greater good.

In education we often encounter students and parents who have difficulty understanding this.  Naturally, students react negatively to painful situations, and parents wish to protect their children.  Indeed, it is our responsibility as teachers to protect our students from pain that can be harmful. Parents take seriously that same responsibility toward their children.

Ironically, however, we can harm children by sheltering them from all kinds of pain.  Making mistakes, disappointing ourselves and others, falling short of success, competing and losing, trying and failing, longing for fulfillment, empathizing with suffering, and lamenting injustice all bear their share of pain, but we need these experiences to learn and grow as human beings.

And we must also acknowledge that all things that are harmful are not necessarily painful.  Exacting revenge, thinking ill of others, dehumanizing our fellow human beings, abusing substances, and even hiding from discomfort can all be harmful to ourselves, to others, or both.

As educators and as humans, we must seek to protect our students from harm and provide them with experiences for growth–as painful as that might be at times.

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7 thoughts on “Pain vs. Harm

  1. These are wise words eloquently written. As a parent I hate to see my children in pain and tried mightily to keep them from pain, but you are so right. Pain may be necessary for growth and as parents and teachers we are wise to remember that. Thanks.

  2. This is a differentiation that I never really thought about, but it is very useful to do so. There seem to be all kinds of situations to which it can apply. The one that comes to mind quickly for me now (because I am suffering through it most recently) is the pain from giving up sweets for Lent. Painful? Certainly. Harmful? Hardly.
    Thank you for this helpful distinction.

  3. Again, you’ve got me thinking, thinking deeply. The last line is a powerful reminder! It made me think of how we need to let kids struggle (deal with pain/discomfort) so that they can grow and we can watch how they get themselves out of trouble! Thanks for sharing!

  4. I’ve actually been thinking a lot about this. The question of how I help foster resilience in my own children and in my students is a topic that burns bright in my mind. This comparison is very helpful in organizing some of my thoughts. Thank you!

  5. You have done such a beautiful job explaining the difference. Sometimes I want to say to parents, “Just get over it” when the tell me how devastated their child is about a grade, or not getting chosen for something. Children need to learn how to problem solve and be more resilient. Thanks.

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