The Key to Happiness is Feeling Your Pain

As a psychotherapist, one of the weirdest things I ask people to do is to  “feel their pain.”

When I was in therapy, I asked the same question my clients ask me: “Why should I feel my pain? Isn’t it better to avoid pain at all costs?” Actually, a willingness to feel your pain is the secret of true happiness. Here’s why.

In my family, Sunday night is movie night. As a film buff, I try to find something my wife, my 8-year-old daughter, Maya, my 5-year-old son, Ethan, and I will all like. It is a chance for some shared fun and to grow. Stories, I believe, are the best way to teach children of all ages from 5 to 90.

I found a film on Netflix-On-Demand that looked like it would work. It was called Where the Red Fern Grows.”

This film, from 1974, is based on a 1961 children’s novel by Wilson Rawls. It tells the story of a poor boy from the Ozarks, Billy, who dreams of owning a pair of coonhound hunting dogs. With great determination he works for two years to save enough money to buy the dogs. Billy’s hounds become known for being the best raccoon hunters around.

Toward the end of the film, Billy goes out hunting with his dogs, Old Dan and Little Ann. He gets threatened by a mountain lion. Old Dan saves Billy’s life, but dies from his wounds. A few days later, Little Ann dies on his grave of a broken heart.

My wife and I had no idea that this would happen in the film, and maybe we wouldn’t have watched it if we had known. We were all bawling. My kids were inconsolable.

My son protested loudly through his tears. “I don’t like this movie! I want there to be a different ending!”

My wife brought him to bed. I lay down with Maya, still crying, to talk about the lessons of the movie, and to help her with her sadness.

We talked about the many things we learned from the movie and then we got to the end. We planned to get a dog soon. “Will our dog die?” Maya asked.

“Yes,” I said. “Do you still want to get one?”

She had to think about this for a minute. Then she understood.

The movie is told in flashback. Billy is a grown-up when he tells us the story of his boyhood in the hills with Old Dan and Little Ann. He remembers this time as the happiest of his life. How could that be, when it ended so tragically?

After his dogs died, as a result of their fame and winnings in hunting contests, Billy and his family were able to leave their farm and move into town. Right before he left, he visited the grave and discovered that a red fern had grown there. In Indian legend only an angel can plant a red fern, and it makes that land sacred.

Maya and I talked about what the red fern meant. Billy was so happy in that time of his life because he had the love of his dogs and family, and because he loved them. We all know that dogs die, and we will all suffer grief and pain when they do. But the only way to have the dog is to accept that they will one day go.

All too many people suffer lives of emptiness and regret because, in avoiding pain, they never get the most important thing we can have in our one chance at life: love. The red fern tells us that though we shed tears of sorrow for the loss of Old Dan and Little Ann, it is worth it, because it is only by being willing to feel our pain that we can have true happiness.

Dr. Glenn Berger is a psychotherapist, relationship counselor, business and artist’s coach, and young person’s mentor. He sees patients in New York City, Mt. Kisco, NY, and around the world by Skype.