Pain: the gift nobody wants.
A recent stint of surgery reminded me that pain has a very real purpose.
Having been cut open then stitched up in a three and a half hour operation I was pretty enthusiastic about the pain-relief on offer afterwards.
When I reacted badly to the first painkiller, they switched me to another one. It took a little while, but I realised it was causing insidious and unrelenting panic.
I lay in my hospital bed in the dead of night with a horrible feeling that the most important job interview of my life was imminent…and it wasn’t going to go well.
By the time I was recuperating at home, the painkillers were causing full-blown, screaming-out-loud nightmares.
I decided the pain was preferable to the pain-relief and quickly dropped back to everyday painkillers.
It was then that I was reminded that pain has a point: it stops us doing things we shouldn’t do.
I had been instructed not to lift my arms. On the strong painkillers, I gave it a shot. Without them, I was an obedient little lamb.
The pain was preventing me from hurting myself.
Like most other humans, I’ve had my share of physical pain: RSI, chronic period pain, migraines, joint pain, giving birth…
Some of my pain visits briefly. It drops in to say ‘hi’ and ‘don’t do that!’. Other pain hangs around, a daily companion at my keyboard, or a predictable, self-invited guest.
When I taught yoga, I educated myself on the language of pain. Pain is a broad and subjective experience, and part of respecting it, is naming it. Pinning it down. Where is it? What is it doing?
Is it burning, aching, sharp, tingling, shooting, stabbing, nagging, intense, intermittent, tender, hot, dragging…or is it actually not pain, but discomfort?
I encouraged my yoga students to sit with discomfort, but not with pain. The pain is there for a reason. It is telling you something major is going on. And pain in a yoga pose is not good for anything.
My most intimate appreciation of pain came when I was in labour. Don’t worry, I’m not going to give you gory details…but I do want to share my surprise.
Generally speaking, women are taught to be terrified of labour pain. And, yes, it can really hurt. But what we’re not told is — in a straight forward labour — there will be breaks. The contractions come. And then they go away. It’s the kind of pain, intense as it is, you can ride like a wave.
The other surprise for me in labour was the steady rise in my own endorphins. My own body was helping me cope with the pain. What extraordinary bio-chemical magic is that? By the time I had to push, I was (as we say in Australia) off my trolley. A friend arrived late in the labour and said I was so ‘drugged’ she thought I’d opted for pethidine.
The title of this article comes from a book by Dr Paul Brand and Philip Yancey. Their studies and description of their medical experience gave me an appreciation that without pain, we can really hurt ourselves. Their studies of leprosy are a great case in point.
Because leprosy deadens the nerve endings, someone with the disease ceases to make micro adjustments in their activities. When we walk, for example, we’re constantly making small adjustments to spread the impact out over our feet. Someone with leprosy gets pressure sores because they’re not getting those sensations. They also lose the ability to make larger adjustments, too, which would help prevent a myriad of everyday injuries such as cuts and burns.
The leprosy takes away the pain. Without pain, dreadful injuries occur.
There is, of course, another type of pain. Life ache.
When circumstances don’t match our expectations, when Fate tosses us about, when we get trapped in situations, or stuck in a rut…it hurts.
Sometimes our capacity for psychological suffering enables us to remain in necessarily difficult situations — caring for a needy loved one, for example. We find ways to live with the pain of doing what needs to be done.
But sometimes we reach our ‘threshold’ of life pain.
Unlike my post-surgery example (when the pain stopped me from doing something that could hurt me), life ache/pain can push us to change.
Our threshold for ‘life pain’ is just as subjective as physical pain. Some of us abide in unhealthy relationships, for example, for decades — sitting with the pain of disconnect far longer than others would.
Whatever the circumstances, life ache deserves just as much respect as physical pain. When we numb it with alcohol or over-work or distractions or meaningless sex or whatever…we ignore its warning. There is something major going on here — take notice!
But eventually, inexorably, the pain will serve its purpose. As Anais Nin said:
And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.
Suffering seems to be a part of being human, but when we look courageously at our pain, respect its place in our lives, just maybe we can find its purpose.
Thanks for reading!