Pain
@30 December 2000


How did you enjoy the movie? Any movie, almost. Let's predict your answer. You will talk about the actors, or the drama of events, or the interesting personal memories stirred by a scene. Will you talk about the pain, real or metaphorical? Probably not directly. Pain is a downer. Yet a film of perfect, unsullied happiness would make poor box office (a few try, and court contempt as propaganda!). We would typically feel a painless movie or novel to be insipid. Heaven is a dull place. However, someone else's pain is endlessly fascinating.


Well how about your own pain? Could you do without it? You will fight to the death to keep your comfort zone, yet the edge of pain defines and heightens your sense of the real. Without it you would live in cotton-wool land, the mere shadow of a living creature. And here is one of the great paradoxes of life. We crave, as it were, the knowledge of pain, but shrink from its sensation. At the point of pain our courage fails us, we flee, or paralysed by fear, we surrender all autonomy and submit in misery to the conqueror.


When pain violently intrudes (the hammer hitting the finger), we are briefly breathless, then maybe a little numb, but shortly the pain subsides, the unwanted guest departs. Pain in other guises though may be more insistent. Sometimes, allowing pain into the heartland of our consciousness is seductive, irresistible, and once there our defenses, weakened by despair, have great trouble in expelling the intruder.


Final surrender to pain has the gravest consequences. It is the most foolish of all options. Yet oddly enough, as our lives become cacooned in every physical and psychological protection that affluence can buy, we become more vulnerable to pain as a long-term visitor. No longer forced into hand to hand combat with pain on a daily basis, we lose our street fighting skills, lose a certain toughness. We are chocolate cream soldiers, gravely wounded by small hurts.


Hence there comes a point when the acceptance of pain is a debilitating self-indulgence. The most sensible thing to do with pain is to test its source in blood, bones and tissue, and if no source is to be found, then challenge its occupation of the mind. In fact, even where it IS sourced in blood, bones or tissue, once its warning has been attended to as best as may be, then its occupation of the mind should still be challenged.

Let us be clear about what we are saying here. This is no assertion of a mind-body dilemma. "The mind", as I speak of it, is the software in the human biological machine. The medium which carries this software may be electrical or chemical or both (but not, I believe, supernatural -- exceeding the laws of physics). Anyway, the medium is less important than the code, for it is the code (instruction set) which determines the life, the performance, and the death of every cell in the body. Although we inherit instructions for life in the form of a genetic code, this is only a working base. The total survival code of a living creature is not immutable. After all, it is the remarkable ability of human beings to learn that gives them such power -- and vulnerability. Where instructions go wrong, whole body parts may become cancerous, or malfunction in other ways.


There are cultures which readily accept that people may will themselves to death -- they call it sorcery, or a broken heart, or a dozen other names. In fact, the process is unremarkable, a "computer program" as it were, a sort of "computer virus" which instructs the biological machine into self-destructive behaviour. We all seem to have stored away some internal instruction code that is destructive to the organism. Maybe it is a product of very complex systems. Although instructions for say, a death curse, operate at a more covert and private level than instructions which induce young men to "die for their country" by putting themselves in harm's way, this does not mean that they are essentially different in design. The youthful hero (soldier, party-binger, rally driver), the suicidal "freedom fighter", and the business executive who dies of hypertension are all following internally destructive sets of biological computer code. So is the depressed housewife who overdoses on amphetamines.

Now consider the matter of pain. You hit your finger with a hammer, so there is intense pain telling you of tissue damage. That seems plain enough. But this is the outer edge of simplicity, a paradigm of cause and effect that is short, sharp and unlikely (we hope) to reoccur. It is not the stuff of neurosis. However, as our biological machines (our bodies) and their controlling software (our minds) trudge across the decades, most of us have experiences which are far more persistently negative than a bang on the finger with a hammer. Sometimes this negative ambience is a general discontent with the pattern of our lives and relationships, sometimes it stems from an originating disease or injury, or from severe trauma, or from simple physical deterioration due to poor body management. In all of these cases, there is unhappiness, often a degree of obsession with the condition, and sooner or later, pain.

Why pain? Well, it seems to be in the nature of the pain beast to hang around, unless we have other urgent business to attend to. It is almost a truism that someone injured in the heat of battle might not feel pain until the shouting and the tumult dies. It is also a truism that the busy and devoted worker, after the first flush of retirement, acquires a zoo full of aches and pains which never got fed in earlier days. What is happening? I think that as we become older we may find it more difficult to learn, say, new languages, but we become superb learners of pain. As a conservative statesman once said, "once you put an idea into that head, you'll never ever get it out again" [Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, in the court of England's Henry VIII].


Pain, in other words, is "an idea with consequences", if you like, a small piece of biological computer code which, if you press the GO button, is apt to do unpleasant things. What is worse, this code is dynamic, again rather like a sophisticated computer virus, in the sense that it can modify itself to give a sensation of pain in places other than its first source, and it can multiply the number of mental situations which will "press that GO button".

What is to be done? There are many answers. This little piece of writing is scarcely the first to discuss pain. Buddhism makes a philosophy of the matter, and every religion has a take on pain. The success of these religions may have something to do with their real success in alleviating real pain, for some people; (pssst, if this essay yields you miraculous relief, feel free to include the writer in your will. He'd love the leisure to write more unwise words ...) Less respectably, the success of liquor merchants the world over, and drug peddlers of every stripe may also have something to do with offering an escape from pain, for some people. As for myself, I run ten kilometers on most days, eat modestly, and keep an active mind.


What do the monk, the alcoholic and the fitness freak have in common? In their own ways they have sought paths to distraction. When you close your eyes and try to clear your mind of all thoughts, well the unwanted mental messages grow like weeds, and most persistent of all the weeds is an itch on the end of your nose, or a twitch in your back, or a little flag that comes in a thousand disguises but always conceals the fearful GO-pain-button. If you are a saint, you might meditate it away, and if you are a jock you might shout it down. There is one trick that I have learned though, and it generally works. When I see one of those GO-pain-buttons hanging around in dark glasses and a panama hat, well I grab it by the neck and shake it. I say "Hey, you're nothing but a lousy bit of computer code that shouldn't be in the neighbourhood. Scram!"


All opinions expressed in Thor's Unwise Ideas and The Passionate Skeptic are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influence, proselytize or persuade others to a point of view. He is pleased if his writing generates reflection in readers, either for or against the sentiment of the argument.

"Pain" copyrighted to Thor May; all rights reserved 2001

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