Stoicism – the Endurance of Pain

 The military values stoicism – the silent endurance of pain (both physical and emotional).

Soldiers are asked to be stoical and resilient in the face of all hardship. They must be mentally strong. They must be controlled enough to endure pain without complaint or question.

The military would argue that a man who expresses his pain, who rejects the casual unnecessary imposition of pain and hardship during training, undermines the discipline, coherence, co-operation and communality of all troops. They believe that the expression of pain could corrode and weaken the military’s ability to use soldiers in the harsh circumstances of war. Men have to undergo training and testing, pain and injury, trauma and fear to be acceptable as soldiers. This, of course, is linked to the rejection of any emotion seen as weak or non-masculine.* Soldiers must not be human.

So – to suit the historical, evolutionary needs of war* – society trains, in fact forces, boys and men to be stoical, to endure pain, discomfort and distress without complaint or protest.

But with so few men ever called to fight in war, why do continue to make such painful and limiting demands? Do we really want our sons to feel that they are never allowed to express the pain they feel – whether physical or emotional? Do we really want boys and men to hide the reality of their lives and to feel that they have to bear things alone, without the care and comfort of others?

Despite the fact that most men’s daily lives consist of work and family nowadays, and they are no longer called to fight in wars, we continue to cripple their capacity to communicate their true selves. Relationships with partners and children are hobbled by an ingrained reluctance or inability to express their pain. Despite the damage to their health, men resist or are reluctant to go for professional help. Finding help with medical, physical or sexual problems is taboo. Parents and society continue to expect men to be constantly stoical, strong-willed and mentally in control, no matter how unhealthy this is to their psychological health.

We train boys into this behaviour in a number of ways:

Boys often get badly hurt during highly competitive sport, but we refuse to allow them to show pain. They must regard pain or injury as a badge of honour and of manly stoicism. Rough, mega-macho, even dangerous sport, has become a space for dominant ‘real’ boy display, as war is for ‘real’ male display.
Many boys are still forced to undergo violent and primitive initiation rites to gain acceptance into school, college, university or gangs. These usually entail humiliating, damaging or violent tests. Boys hide their fear and their pain to gain acceptance. These rituals force them to accept hierarchical discipline. They make boys afraid of standing up for themselves in case of humiliation. They make boys self-defensive and aggressive. They undermine boys’ ability to make moral choices. Explained and excused as building loyalty and spirit, what they do is humiliate boys and lead to non-thinking obedience.
Stoicism, violence and pain are also introduced to boys by teachers and prefects who enjoy asserting power, usually physical power, over them. They use mockery, humiliation, peer rejection and induce a deep sense of shame. You would think boys would reject this brutality as they get older, but as boys move up the school hierarchy, peer pressure ensures they do the same to those below them. The tradition of violence is passed on.
Another common form of pain and violence that boys suffer stoically and silently is the violence of sexual abuse of young boys by older family members, family friends and teachers – predators who inflict pain and humiliation. Boys are reluctant to seek help because of the pressure on them to be ‘masculine’, and from fear of being thought of as weak or homosexual. This abuse undermines a boy’s identity, trust in others or can make him abusive in turn.

Some Western countries have largely done away with the rituals of pain that boys go through elsewhere to become so-called ‘real’ men. To replace these lost rituals, fathers who fear that their sons are too soft and weak, rely on the military to provide the painful experience to exorcise these gentle components of boys and ‘make’ them brave, stoical and disciplined. The military is seen as preventing the emasculation of the nation and its men.

So, why do we put our sons and men through this torture?

When we consider that nowadays few men are asked to go to war for their countries, this is a high price for men to pay. Society causes a crippling stunting of men’s humanity and their ability to enter fully into honest friendship and intimate and family relationships, purely for the sake of the military and war.

Next I look at our need for boys to act tough.*


8 Responses to Stoicism – the Endurance of Pain

  1. Pingback: Male Stoicism: A New Direction | Men's Psychology

  2. Bryan says:

    As a male, I believe that trained, muted affect to physical pain and external stressors is a valuable tool towards performing at peak potential, and (in particular) reducing the tendency to *panic* in mortally dangerous scenarios, thereby increasing survival probability.

    A long time ago, I was an airline pilot. Part of any pilot’s training (from first day of ground school to the last day on the line) is: “In the face of danger, don’t panic; don’t ‘freeze up’; continue to ‘fly the plane’ and do your job.” When actually presented with severe weather I honestly thought was most likely going to kill me, I reverted to trained behavior: I didn’t panic; I didn’t freeze up; I did my job, even as I suspected “doing my job” wasn’t going to be enough, inside that thunderstorm.

    Please, tell me how “expressing my pain” (“ZOMG we’re all gonna DIE!”) in this scenario benefits either me or my co-pilot?

    The other thing: all lives have pain. Learning to experience the pain without indulging the natural tendency to recoil from it ultimately results in a lessened effect to the same pain later on (i.e. you “develop a tolerance” to it). I can revel in a bracing rain storm on a summer day, if caught in it; I can “feel the burn” from strenuous work and STILL continue until I reach a desired objective; I can “sever the link” between a physically painful stimulus and the sensation of being in unbearable misery (to a point, of course). All of this is good–and all of this is trained: you ain’t born that way!

    So, tell me again why stoic affect is such an awful thing?

    • caygin says:

      Hi Bryan. Thanks for your really interesting comment and question. I agree with a lot that you say but it’s not really in conflict with the issue in hand. Many situations may illicit fear or pain. These are human reactions and not negative in themselves. And all individuals – being human – should experience them because they are part of our survival mechanisms. Resisting the urge to panic is, of course, vital in response to fear or threat. Being able to be stoic also has it’s uses in many situations.
      Where my argument comes in, is that it is frequently instilled into boys that it is ‘unmanly’, in fact shameful, to express fear or pain or exhaustion or a sense of weakness, even to friends, or others that they love or trust. Frequently men do not have an outlet to express these feelings. There is such pressure on them to live up to some mythological image of masculinity that all they are left with is shame and self-doubt if they experience fear, weakness, pain, etc. This is where stoicism – the shutting down of feelings – can be very negative.

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