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I’d first heard about Harlow’s Monkeys in a high school psychology class called Human Behavior. There, we scratched the surface. It would not be until later at university that someone would explain it to me in no uncertain terms, the nightmare of it. The images—video clips, photographs, sterile journal entries—have stayed with me always. I can never get them out of my mind, in the same way that I can never get losing Mika out of my mind or the image of the mother lion crying over her dead cub out of my mind.

In a well-known series of experiments conducted between 1957 and 1963 in his laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Harry Harlow removed baby rhesus monkeys from their mothers and arranged for them to be “raised” by two kinds of surrogate monkey mother machines, both equipped to dispense milk. One device was made out of bare mesh wire. The other was fashioned from wire and covered with soft terrycloth. He later modified the experiment by separating the infants into two groups, giving them no choice between the two types of mothers. Later still, he subjected the baby monkeys to complete isolation in what he called the pit of despair.

There is a lot more to it than this simple summary, but there is one thing that has stuck with me more than any of the other observations of the ill-gotten experiment. At some point, the baby monkeys were given a choice between the terrycloth surrogate mothers and the wire mesh surrogate mothers. The meaningful difference between the two was that the wire mesh surrogate mothers had milk for the babies, while the terrycloth surrogate mothers had none. The baby monkeys were starved for extended periods of time. Still, they clung to the soft and warm terrycloth mothers. It did not matter that they were starving (and did starve) to death. It did not matter that the wire mesh mothers had milk. They clung to soft and warm. They clung to what they knew—at the risk of annihilation. There was no instinct for survival or self-preservation. The only thing that mattered was comfort, familiarity.

Recently, I got into a conversation with my friend Lisa about her life choices. Lisa was a victim of sexual abuse as a child. Since then she has made great strides to overcome the trauma, but to this day, she still struggles with her old demons. We started talking about it all when she asked the question, “Why do I put myself in a position/jobs where I re-enact the abuse?”

My response was, “You choose it because as horrifying as it may be, you know it. You are comfortable with it.”

And this is what brings me to Harlow’s Monkeys. This absolutely mind-boggling conundrum that plagues us living creatures. The baby monkey that would starve itself. The curious cat. The battered woman. The alcoholic. The gambler. We all have this tragic flaw in common, like moths to the flame, we willfully destroy ourselves. Why? Because it is what we know.

I am afraid that I do not have the answer. There is no magic bullet for this one. There are no “5 Easy Steps to Change Your Life & Overcome.” I am a victim, too. I don’t always make the right decisions. I eat too much, drink too much, spend too much, sleep too much. Even when I know that moderation, exercise, and energy are the right decisions, sometimes I choose wrong.

In my experience, there is only one way to combat the destruction of choosing pain and it is awareness. It is the thing that separates us from the baby monkey and all other animals. We alone have the gift of self awareness. We can choose to make ourselves aware; to make conscious decisions; to say that DESPITE THE FACT THAT I HAVE KNOWN PAIN—I WILL CHOOSE HAPPINESS. DESPITE THE FACT THAT PAIN IS COMFORTABLE AND FAMILIAR—I WILL CHOOSE HAPPINESS & HEALTH & LIGHT.

There is always the path of darkness & there is always the path of light. We, human beings, are gifted with the ability to choose which path we will travel. Choose light.

3 thoughts on “We choose pain because we know it.”

  1. I was thinking about this idea today when I saw that a student had sent his friend a joke essay related to an assignment I had given. This student has such confidence and creativity and I wondered to myself why can’t I be more like him – my students teach me so much how I can live in the light! 

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