Pain, Fear, and Courage: with C. S. Lewis and Brené Brown

By Seth Strawn, LPC | October 27, 2023 

While reading through some of the literary works by C. S. Lewis (specifically The Problem of Pain and The Screwtape Letters,) and through Brené Brown’s book, Braving the Wilderness, a commonality is observed that both academic writers address, which are the topics of difficult and powerful emotions.  C. S. Lewis writes from a spiritual, theological, philosophical, and imaginative perspective, and though he was not in the field of psychology, much of his writings pertain to the nature and psychology of human-beings. As a researcher, Brené Brown writes about courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy, and does so from a social work perspective. Both writers are storytellers who discuss the roles of pain, fear, anger, hate, and courage, and how these emotions can affect people’s sense of overall well-being and connectedness.

Pain

“Pain is unrelenting. It will get our attention… Pain will subside only when we acknowledge it and care for it… Most of us were not taught how to recognize pain, name it, and be with it…” (Brown, 2019, p. 66-67)

“But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world… No doubt pain as God’s megaphone is a terrible instrument; it may lead to final and unrepented rebellion.” (Lewis, 1944)

Pain is an experience which demands our attention. People have often made it a practice to minimize their pain or to repress it, pretending that it is not there or that “it’s not that bad.” Though this may seem to mitigate the pain and help for a season, the pain will eventually resurface and once again demand attention. Pain is an alarm which signals that something is wrong. If that signal is heeded and sincerely addressed, healing can begin. If that signal is ignored, then the threshold for further pain, hardship, and hurt will begin to decrease along with one’s tolerance for stress and sense of overall wellness. Pain and painful experiences have the potential to lead us toward connection and growth if we work on addressing and nurturing the source of the wound.  …Or, pain can lead us toward a place of isolation, agitation, and being stuck. Whether or not we choose to face our pain and to work through our pain can be the deciding factor which will either make us or break us – the difference between getting better or getting bitter.

Fear, Anger, and Hate

“When we are in pain and fear, anger and hate are our go-to emotions…it’s easier to be pissed-off than it is to be hurt or scared. . . Anger is a catalyst. Holding on to it will make us exhausted and sick… Or sometimes anger can mask a far more difficult emotion like grief, regret, or shame, and we need to use it to dig in to what we’re really feeling…” (Brown, 2019, p. 67-68)

“Hatred… The tension of human nerves during noise, danger, and fatigue, makes [humans] prone to any violent emotion… Hatred is best combined with Fear…Hatred has its pleasures. It is therefore often the compensation by which a frightened man reimburses himself for the miseries of Fear. The more he fears, the more he will hate…” (Lewis, 2012 p. 159-160)

The difficulty is that after we’ve put a band-aid over the pain and pushed it away, acknowledging the new pain and facing it in the moment often hurts worse than the pain itself. However, true relief and healing only come when we go through the process of sitting with, naming, and working through the pain and hurt. Pain unattended to often fuels fear (e.g. fear of being hurt again, fear of hypothetical or potential what-ifs, of embarrassment, failure, not being enough, fear of the unknown and the uncertain), which can then begin building up to anger and then potentially to hate. Once we’re in a state of anger and hate (whether we stew on internally or express externally), we are no longer in a state of reasonableness or compassion. We store those charged emotions within the cells of our physical bodies and often experience the physical tension, exhaustion, and headaches as symptoms of the anger. Our anger and our hate are easily self-justified as our right and our entitlement for the misery and fear induced by the fermentation of the pain. Sometimes, our anger and our hate are the tipping point of many smaller unprocessed pains accumulating (such as experiences of annoyance, frustration, shame, guilt, grief, and loss). When these smaller pains are unattended to and go without repair, they build one-on-top of the other until eventually they hit a breaking point, like a Jenga Tower collapsing from lack of structural stability or a volcano erupting.

Courage

“Courage is forged in pain, but not in all pain. Pain that is denied or ignored becomes fear or hate. Anger that is never transformed becomes resentment and bitterness.” (Brown, 2019, p. 69)

“…Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality. A chastity or honesty, or mercy, which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful till it became risky.” (Lewis, 2012, p. 161-162)

As unpleasant as it is to hold onto our pains and fears, it is almost always easier than facing them, going through them, or letting them go. There can be a sense of security and self-protection we gain when we keep our pains and fears close. When things are held close, we often feel a greater sense of being able to manipulate or control those things to best suit our needs. Sometimes, we look to those things to give us, in part, a sense of identity.

When pain and fear have been a part of one’s life for so long, that person might not know who they would be without the pain, because the pain is so familiar. It takes courage and vulnerability to step beyond the lines of what is familiar. We often associate what is familiar with what is safe, and we associate the unfamiliar with potential threat. Our fear response is activated, and it acts as one of the strongest protective factors we have to keep us safe. However, when our fear response takes over, and we cease to take new risks, we also cease to grow and to experience some of life’s greatest joys.

Stepping beyond the lines of what is familiar might be one of the hardest things a person ever does. However, rare is the scenario when taking the easier path ends up being the best path. To break the cycle of isolation, shame, guilt, loneliness, and beliefs of unworthiness, courage is required. Without the existence of fear, the virtue and practice of courage is impossible. Courage is that which is required of us when the safest path – or the easiest path – is not the best path.

In our pain and times of difficulty, we are almost always presented with at least two paths. One of those is the path of Courage, which says, “even though this is going to be hard, and it might cost me something valuable, the cost of not taking this path is greater; and if I do not take this path, I risk the chance of losing an important part of who I am and who I want to become.” Courage is what allows us to look Fear in the face, acknowledge the risk and the cost, and move forward with a sense of purpose and hope, toward growth, healing, and connection.

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While reading through some of the literary works by C. S. Lewis (specifically The Problem of Pain and The Screwtape Letters,) and through Brené Brown’s book, Braving the Wilderness, a commonality is observed that both academic writers address, which are the topics of difficult and powerful emotions.  C. S. Lewis writes from a spiritual, theological, philosophical, and imaginative perspective, and though he was not in the field of psychology, much of his writings pertain to the nature and psychology of human-beings. As a researcher, Brené Brown writes about courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy, and does so from a social work perspective. Both writers are storytellers who discuss the roles of pain, fear, anger, hate, and courage, and how these emotions can affect people’s sense of overall well-being and connectedness.

Pain

“Pain is unrelenting. It will get our attention… Pain will subside only when we acknowledge it and care for it… Most of us were not taught how to recognize pain, name it, and be with it…” (Brown, 2019, p. 66-67)

“But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world… No doubt pain as God’s megaphone is a terrible instrument; it may lead to final and unrepented rebellion.” (Lewis, 1944)

Pain is an experience which demands our attention. People have often made it a practice to minimize their pain or to repress it, pretending that it is not there or that “it’s not that bad.” Though this may seem to mitigate the pain and help for a season, the pain will eventually resurface and once again demand attention. Pain is an alarm which signals that something is wrong. If that signal is heeded and sincerely addressed, healing can begin. If that signal is ignored, then the threshold for further pain, hardship, and hurt will begin to decrease along with one’s tolerance for stress and sense of overall wellness. Pain and painful experiences have the potential to lead us toward connection and growth if we work on addressing and nurturing the source of the wound.  …Or, pain can lead us toward a place of isolation, agitation, and being stuck. Whether or not we choose to face our pain and to work through our pain can be the deciding factor which will either make us or break us – the difference between getting better or getting bitter.

Fear, Anger, and Hate

“When we are in pain and fear, anger and hate are our go-to emotions…it’s easier to be pissed-off than it is to be hurt or scared. . . Anger is a catalyst. Holding on to it will make us exhausted and sick… Or sometimes anger can mask a far more difficult emotion like grief, regret, or shame, and we need to use it to dig in to what we’re really feeling…” (Brown, 2019, p. 67-68)

“Hatred… The tension of human nerves during noise, danger, and fatigue, makes [humans] prone to any violent emotion… Hatred is best combined with Fear…Hatred has its pleasures. It is therefore often the compensation by which a frightened man reimburses himself for the miseries of Fear. The more he fears, the more he will hate…” (Lewis, 2012 p. 159-160)

The difficulty is that after we’ve put a band-aid over the pain and pushed it away, acknowledging the new pain and facing it in the moment often hurts worse than the pain itself. However, true relief and healing only come when we go through the process of sitting with, naming, and working through the pain and hurt. Pain unattended to often fuels fear (e.g. fear of being hurt again, fear of hypothetical or potential what-ifs, of embarrassment, failure, not being enough, fear of the unknown and the uncertain), which can then begin building up to anger and then potentially to hate. Once we’re in a state of anger and hate (whether we stew on internally or express externally), we are no longer in a state of reasonableness or compassion. We store those charged emotions within the cells of our physical bodies and often experience the physical tension, exhaustion, and headaches as symptoms of the anger. Our anger and our hate are easily self-justified as our right and our entitlement for the misery and fear induced by the fermentation of the pain. Sometimes, our anger and our hate are the tipping point of many smaller unprocessed pains accumulating (such as experiences of annoyance, frustration, shame, guilt, grief, and loss). When these smaller pains are unattended to and go without repair, they build one-on-top of the other until eventually they hit a breaking point, like a Jenga Tower collapsing from lack of structural stability or a volcano erupting.

Courage

“Courage is forged in pain, but not in all pain. Pain that is denied or ignored becomes fear or hate. Anger that is never transformed becomes resentment and bitterness.” (Brown, 2019, p. 69)

“…Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality. A chastity or honesty, or mercy, which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful till it became risky.” (Lewis, 2012, p. 161-162)

As unpleasant as it is to hold onto our pains and fears, it is almost always easier than facing them, going through them, or letting them go. There can be a sense of security and self-protection we gain when we keep our pains and fears close. When things are held close, we often feel a greater sense of being able to manipulate or control those things to best suit our needs. Sometimes, we look to those things to give us, in part, a sense of identity.

When pain and fear have been a part of one’s life for so long, that person might not know who they would be without the pain, because the pain is so familiar. It takes courage and vulnerability to step beyond the lines of what is familiar. We often associate what is familiar with what is safe, and we associate the unfamiliar with potential threat. Our fear response is activated, and it acts as one of the strongest protective factors we have to keep us safe. However, when our fear response takes over, and we cease to take new risks, we also cease to grow and to experience some of life’s greatest joys.

Stepping beyond the lines of what is familiar might be one of the hardest things a person ever does. However, rare is the scenario when taking the easier path ends up being the best path. To break the cycle of isolation, shame, guilt, loneliness, and beliefs of unworthiness, courage is required. Without the existence of fear, the virtue and practice of courage is impossible. Courage is that which is required of us when the safest path – or the easiest path – is not the best path.

In our pain and times of difficulty, we are almost always presented with at least two paths. One of those is the path of Courage, which says, “even though this is going to be hard, and it might cost me something valuable, the cost of not taking this path is greater; and if I do not take this path, I risk the chance of losing an important part of who I am and who I want to become.” Courage is what allows us to look Fear in the face, acknowledge the risk and the cost, and move forward with a sense of purpose and hope, toward growth, healing, and connection.

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References

Brown, B. (2019). Braving the wilderness: The quest for true belonging and the courage to stand alone. Random House.

Lewis C. S. (1944). The problem of pain. Macmillan.

Lewis, C. S. (2012). The screwtape letters. William Collins.

References

Brown, B. (2019). Braving the wilderness: The quest for true belonging and the courage to stand alone. Random House.

Lewis C. S. (1944). The problem of pain. Macmillan.

Lewis, C. S. (2012). The screwtape letters. William Collins.