On Pain: Grin and Bare It

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Our whole life is an Irish Sea, wherein there is naught to be expected but tempestuous storms and troublesome waves, and those infinite…

—Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy

I have seen what a laugh can do. It can transform almost unbearable tears into something bearable, even hopeful.

—Bob Hope, American Comedian

It was the great Stoic, Marcus Aurelius who once enjoined the citizen in saying: “When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.” As a comic fatalist I can concur with this. Saul Bellow would write in his own way the comic fatalist as stoic in Seize the Day! As he said in that work: “I want to tell you, don’t marry suffering. Some people do. They get married to it, and sleep and eat together, just as husband and wife. If they go with joy they think it’s adultery.”

I live with pain. Enough said. Yet, one learns to take it in stride like everything else in one’s life, one learns to not let it rule over one. Isn’t this one aspect of facing one’s life, that one has to make a choice toward one’s physical states. One can let the body rule one, one can try to rule it (not a real solution!), or one can just accept the inevitability of one’s degeneration into dust with equanimity and magnanimity. That sense of calmness and generosity toward one’s self, one’s own foibles and physical truth of age, disease, and ultimate demise and disappearance. Either to enter into the elegaic as in Rilke, or to become the bitter troubadour of spite as in Yeats. Or, one can stand amid the squalor and ruination of one’s being as in the ‘eye of a hurricane’ and admit that one has no control over these forces, but how magnificent to have been a part of this madness.

One of the issues one tries to resolve early on is one’s stance toward one’s body and its pain. Is this thing that sends messages of excruciating horror my way a part of me or not? The body is generally seen as a wonderful intricate machine operating on understandable principles that will be revealed by increasingly sophisticated scientific investigation. It includes a sensory nervous system whose function is to detect events in the world around us and within our own bodies. This sensory nervous system collects and collates all the available information and presents it in a form that generates pure sensation, according to the dualists. At this supposed frontier, the mind, which operates on entirely different principles, may inspect the sensory information and begin mental processes such as perception, affect, memory, self-awareness, and planning of action.1

Yada, yada, yada… we know it personally, or do we? The scientists and especially of late the neuroscientists will tell you all these states are illusionary states, just mixed signals from a subroutine of the body doing its job. Don’t you love such objective knowledge? No, of course not, not when you’re the one in the middle of a gout session, or had one’s leg blow off by and IED, or burned over half of your body by a fire in your home, or a wreck in your car, etc. One could care less about such objective descriptions. Such exact analysis and description never helped anyone in facing the day to day pain of physical or mental anguish.

One source hunter traced down all the words people use to describe pain to doctors. He found seventy commonly used words, which he sorted into categories. Some words, such as pricking or hot, seemed to be used just to describe the stimulus itself. For each of the classes of sensory word, the words were arranged in order of intensity; for example, hot, burning, scalding, searing. Then there was another class of words that he called affective, which described what the sensation was doing to the victim; for example, exhausting, sickening, punishing. Finally, he separated out words that he called evaluative, which expressed the degree of suffering; for example, annoying, miserable, unbearable. (ibid. KL 486)

They’ll even get to the nitty-gritty and tell you the culprit is the sensory nerve fibers. Sensory nerve fibers originate from clusters of cells that lie close to the spine, with one cluster or “ganglion” for each vertebra. A special ganglion lies in the base of the skull and supplies the face, mouth, and head. In the embryo, each cell puts out a short fiber that splits at a T-junction. One arm grows out into the tissue by way of the nerves. The other arm grows into the spinal cord with a large group of similar nerve fibers called the dorsal root, which contains all the fibers from the ganglion. The skin is profusely innervated with three types of sensory fibers. One group, called A beta fibers, are wrapped in a fatty protein called myelin and are sensitive to gentle pressure. The second group, called A delta fibers, are thinner and are sensitive to heavy pressure and temperature. The third group, called C fibers, are very thin and have no myelin and respond to pressure, chemicals, and temperature. Deep tissue and organs such as the heart, bladder, and gut are innervated only by the thinner fibers. (ibid. KL 5224)

Now I ask you, how does knowing what the specific material processes are that get the job done of sending you the freckking message that you’re in pain do to help you face it? Nada!

Then there are the pain doctors of the Sacred. I kid you not. Pain is not a simple matter they tell us: There is an enormous difference between the unwanted pain of a cancer patient or victim of a car crash, and the voluntary and modulated self-hurting of a religious practitioner. Religious pain produces states of consciousness, and cognitive-emotional changes, that affect the identity of the individual subject and her sense of belonging to a larger community or to a more fundamental state of being. More succinctly, pain strengthens the religious person’s bond with God and with other persons. Of course, since not all pain is voluntary or self-inflicted, one mystery of the religious life is how unwanted suffering can become transformed into sacred pain.2

I can’t speak to this being an atheist, but the last time I felt a connection to the great all it certainly wasn’t when I woke up with my left foot the size of a walrus and sending me gout messages that “Hey, Bug, we’re back in town and we’re here to hurt you in ways you haven’t even thought about.” No, God had nothing to do with my outlook toward that merciless shock running the gamut of my poor body into my little old foolish brain that triggered the tears and consciousness each second I moved or touched my foot to anything at all. Pain isn’t a religious experience, its a destitution, that’s what it is. Or, if truth be told: Pain is a god in his own right, one that tries to hold its power over every thought, every affect, every aspect of one’s life; a tyrant that want go away.

The German novelist Ernst Junger who would  resist Adolf Hitler’s offers of friendship in the late 1920s and declined to join the Nazi movement even after it came to power in Germany in 1933. Indeed, during Hitler’s chancellorship, he wrote a daring allegory on the barbarian devastation of a peaceful land in the novel Auf den Marmorklippen (1939; On the Marble Cliffs), which, surprisingly, passed the censors and was published in Germany. Jünger was dismissed from the army in 1944 after he was indirectly implicated with fellow officers who had plotted to kill Hitler. A few months later, his son died in combat in Italy after having been sentenced to a penal battalion for political reasons. In his book On Pain he gives one of the most personal accounts:

There are several great and unalterable dimensions that show a man’s stature. Pain is one of them. It is the most difficult in a series of trials one is accustomed to call life. An examination dealing with pain is no doubt unpopular; yet it is not only revealing in its own right, but it can also shed light on a series of questions preoccupying us at the present. Pain is one of the keys to unlock man’s innermost being as well as the world. Whenever one approaches the points where man proves himself to be equal or superior to pain, one gains access to the sources of his power and the secret hidden behind his dominion. Tell me your relation to pain, and I will tell you who you are!

Archeology is actually a science dedicated to pain; in the layers of the earth, it uncovers empire after empire, of which we no longer even know the names. The mourning that takes hold of us at such sites is extraordinary, and it is perhaps in no account of the world portrayed more vividly than in the powerful and mysterious tale about the City of Brass. In this desolate city surrounded by deserts, the Emir Musa reads the words on a tablet made of iron of China: “For I possessed four thousand bay horses in a stable; and I married a thousand damsels, of the daughters of Kings, high-bosomed virgins, like moons; and I was blessed with a thousand children, like stern lions; and I lived a thousand years, happy in mind and heart; and I amassed riches such as the Kings of ‘ I the regions of the earth were unable to procure, and I imagined that my enjoyments would continue without failure. But I was not aware when there alighted among us the terminator of delights and the separator of companions, the desolator of abodes and the ravager of inhabited mansions, the destroyer of the great and the small and the infants and the children and the mothers. We had resided in this palace in security until the event decreed by the Lord of all creatures, the Lord of the heavens and the Lord of the earths, befell us.” Further, on a table , of yellow onyx were graven the words: “Upon this table have eaten a thousand one-eyed Kings, and a thousand Kings each sound in both eyes. All of them have quitted the world, and , taken up their abode in the burial-grounds and the graves.”3

As Robert Burton would say of the above “Be silent then, rest satisfied, comfort thyself with other men’s misfortunes…”:

How many thousands want that which thou hast! how many myriads of poor slaves, captives, of such as work day and night in coal-pits, tin-mines, with sore toil to maintain a poor living, of such as labour in body and mind, live in extreme anguish, and pain, all which thou art free from! Thou art most happy if thou couldst be content, and acknowledge thy happiness. We know the value of a thing from the wanting more than from the enjoying; when thou shalt hereafter come to want, that which thou now loathest, abhorrest, and art weary of, and tired with, when ’tis past, thou wilt say thou werest most happy: and, after a little miss, wish with all thine heart thou hadst the same content again, might’st lead but such a life, a world for such a life: the remembrance of it is pleasant. Be silent then, rest satisfied, comfort thyself with other men’s misfortunes…4

But as I look at my poor foot I see that this, too, is bitter consolation. Contemplating the history of misfortune, of pain, secular or sacred is of little comfort, and is in fact the least of my anguishes. No. For each of us pain is personal and not something we can share with others, and in fact we along with most try out best to just get on with it: which means, we try to forget it, deny it, just pretend and hope it will go away soon. But it sits there like a little demon chiding us with its merciless pitchfork, continuously reminding us that it, not us, is in charge of this force of anguish. But is it? Can we discover a way to confront it directly or indirectly?

Doctors would hand you a pill and say come back in a couple weeks and let’s see how things go. Little comfort there, but at least you get dead zone in the pit of the brain that wipes out whole affective regions. But is this a good thing? Here’s what the blurbs tell you about that from WebMD: Pain management is important for ongoing pain control, especially if you suffer with long-term or chronic pain. After getting a pain assessment, your doctor can prescribe pain medicine, other pain treatments, or psychotherapy to help with pain relief.  In one article on car crash victims we discover this about opioid’s:

For treating persistent pain after a car crash, prescription opioid painkillers such as oxycodone (Oxycontin) are no more effective than nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID) like ibuprofen, a new study finds.

Of course opioids have come under fire of late in studies on addiction. As one Doctor says: “Now that opioids are under fire, it’s forcing us to ask: ‘What is the best treatment, who is it best for and under what conditions?’ ” Beaudoin said in a university news release. “As an emergency physician, I prescribe these drugs all the time. Does what I am giving to people have any impact on the pain outcomes that matter to them?” she added. In their study they discovered that those who were initially prescribed opioids, which can be highly addictive, were 17.5 percent more likely to still be taking the drugs after six weeks, according to the study. Then we discover that Opioid painkiller abuse is a leading public health crisis in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

So for the long haul maybe drugs are not the answer, unless you want an even worse problem than the pain you’re suffering. So is there an answer? Philosophy, Religion, Medicine? WebMD offers a 11 point plan as if it was a part of a salvage operation: Meditation, reduced stress, exercise and endorphin plunges, quit drinking liquor, join a support group of chronic pain believers, stop smoking cigarettes (what about my Mary J? :)), track your pain (oh boy as if I needed a reminder!), biofeedback, go to a masseuse, eat healthy (haha!), and, best of all learn to distract yourself from your pain. Oh, the wonders of modern medical help… lovely remedies. I wonder if the people who write these things up live it?

Well, in the end I don’t think there is some Universal answer to pain, pain is unique, singular, and it is very much real to one’s actual or illusionary consciousness: it lives there 24/7 without let up. You can take that to the bank… of all the remedies I’d agree to that last one: distraction… that’s why I’m writing this essay. To keep my mind off that throbbing sensation that keeps pooping in my mind, dualistic or not. More like a Poe guillotine swinging and swinging and swinging… the inevitable is over us and its getting closer with each swing.

Nietzsche once divided men (what about women?) into the weak and strong, the weak suffer pain like cowards while the strong cheerfully accept pain and suffering. In the Genealogy of Morals he writes that man is “a sickly animal: but suffering itself was not his problem, but the fact that there was no answer to the question he screamed, ‘Suffering for what?’ … The meaninglessness of suffering, not the suffering, was the curse which has so far blanketed mankind.” On Nietzsche’s view, health and strength is a matter of a positive attitude towards life and all of its sufferings: to be strong and healthy just consists in embracing and in this sense overcoming suffering in all of its forms. The weak or sick person, on the other hand, is one who despairs over the fact that he or she suffers, who is hostile to and resents suffering. Strength is thus a form of optimism in the face of suffering, and weakness a form of pessimism. So the kind of health and strength Nietzsche is concerned with is psychological health and strength. And this, for him, is all about the attitude we take to the suffering that is an unavoidable feature of life. True psychological health involves welcoming affirming life and all of its suffering.

Nietzsche wrote this because, he, too, suffered the truth of this life. One usually writes about what one knows, even if one displaces it into philosophical presumption and heroics. In the end we all turn away into our own solitary caves and suffer in our own unique way. What else is there? Crack a joke, a smile, tell the healthy who come by all smiley and bubbles and health and ask you: “How are you feeling today?” Turn toward them and wink, then say: —”I’m feeling like shit, okay?” – Then pick up a book and throw it at them, or take your shoes off and wallop them, pitch them out… tell them “I’m freckking feeling …. painnnnnn”. Then return to one’s indifference and equanimity…

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Red Skelton the American Comedian and artist of clowns, himself a clown handed down a credo:

“Live by this credo: have a little laugh at life and look around you for happiness instead of sadness. Laughter has always brought me out of unhappy situations.”

— Red Skelton

With that I’ll say with my smiley face: “Have a nice day all!” And, with my pessimist grumpiness and curmudgeon best, say: “Well, so it goes…”


  1. Wall, Patrick. Pain: The Science of Suffering (Maps of the Mind) (Kindle Locations 306-311). Columbia University Press. Kindle Edition.
  2. Glucklich, Ariel. Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul (p. 6). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
  3. Tanner, Harold M. China: A History (Volume 1): From Neolithic Cultures through the Great Qing Empire, (10,000 BCE – 1799 CE) Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. (March 15, 2010)
  4. Burton, Robert. The Anatomy of Melancholy. New York Review Books; 1st edition (April 9, 2001)

2 thoughts on “On Pain: Grin and Bare It

  1. LOL! You’re quite a charming writer.I can’t believe I just read an entire article about pain and actually enjoyed it.

    Something I discovered from having children, what gives pain so much power, is actually fear. Childbirth is a bit like being ripped apart and dying, so if you can convince your brain that you are not actually dying, that the pain is really a good thing, it makes everything so much easier. Then we stop calling it “pain,” and we call it “labor,” a lie if I ever heard one, but it is a type of mind over matter. It’s the fear, inconvenience,and weakness of pain, that tends to mess with our minds. Uncertainty, lack of control, fear that it’s going to get worse, all of this angst, misery, and woe, can make pain so much more distressing than it needs to be.

    In religion, faith is the opposite of fear. The two cannot coexist. So the more faith,the less fear and therefore less pain.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yep, I understand. Fear and apprehension of pain is not ‘pain’ per se, but a state of anxiety concerning its absence but possible presence in some indefinable temporal future coming out way.

      I agree labor is one of those misdirection’s, a way of coping.

      Not sure if you’re a dualist or not? You speak with the metaphors of the mind/body dualism? Being a non-dualist and more of a sense-baring being who feels the body is but the horizon of consciousness rather than something separate from us, and not even convinced that using the term ‘mind’ gets us anywhere but in trouble – one of those traditional terms that has been bequeathed to us from metaphysics and transcendence traditions… I see pain as part of what we are, as something we are.

      I think that’s why humor has always played a major role in my life, for it’s the comedians who have usually felt more, been affected more, brought to bare all those sorrows that haunt us and given us in return a way to forget them through laughter – if only for the durations of the laugh.

      Liked by 1 person

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