What if pain weren’t a bad thing?

Meditate on the difference between these two statements:

1. Pain is not a bad thing.

2. Pain is something very bad.

(Example taken from A.A. Long, Hellenistic Philosophy)

On the face of it, statement 1 seems puzzling. How can pain not be a bad thing? Isn’t that rather like saying that a cat isn’t a feline, a man not a mammal?

Common sense appears to tell us that statement 2 is right on the mark. Pain is bad–sometimes very bad indeed–and should be avoided. In fact, we should do everything in our power to steer clear of it. Wouldn’t it be patently absurd of us to stick our hands in boiling water or to go in search of lovers who’d likely harm us? The alchemy that leads to turning pain into pleasure: that’s a story about perverts and masochists who enjoy the feel of leather on their backs and butts. But we’re not perverts and masochists, not most of us anyway.

Have another look at the statements above, though. Imagine you’ve stumbled upon them: turn them over on your tongue, notice how unfamiliar they start to look, examine them as if for the first time. If pain is very bad and yet if it’s a fundamental feature of human existence, then what are we to make of our all too human lot? How are we to muddle on? Can our lives be affirmed?

Set the table with what we know about pain. One part of physical pain is the physical sensation. Another part, as we’re learning from neuroscience, is the psychological component. The pain in my finger is the result of the destruction of tissue and of certain parts of my brain and spinal cord indicating that something’s amiss here. So, physical pain has a mechanistic side as well as mental and phenomenological side.

Other kinds of pain manifest themselves in physical symptoms on account of their psychological force. An involuntary memory of past psychological abuse may make us shiver and recoil. It may show up on our body in countless ways, some that Freud has recounted in his seminal works. Note too that pain can be felt in phantom limbs, pain such a ghostly reminder of arms lost in war or in unfortunate accidents.

We’ve been speaking about the feeling of pain. There’s something else that needs to be said and that’s implicit in what I’ve written so far. It’s that pain hurts. A toothache seems to “hold us” in its grasp, narrowing our focus to the experience of this-here-now. Then too when our father shouts at us, he stings, rips, presses, pushes before our mind shrinks back, numbed and stupified. And when any pain increases in intensity to a threshold beyond a certain physical or mental capacity, we are broken.

In short, pain has a physical and mental side, and  it hurts. It follows that it’s not desirable. But does it follow that it’s bad? Or might judging that some painful experience is bad actually make matters worse–make the pain, somehow, more painful? So that it’s not only bad but “malicious,” “nasty,” and “evil” to boot? How might we frame the experience? As punishment or penance for wrongdoing? As filth that needs to be removed? As an enemy to be vanquished?

Now, what if pain weren’t a bad thing?

  • Consider: people can be evil, actions can be vile, but is pain necessarily evil or vile?
  • Consider this chain of reasoning:

Pain is bad. –> The one who causes pain is evil. –> The world that allows pain is uninhabitable. –>

My life in pain is intolerable.

  • Consider: the pain that accompanies our goal-directed activity. The pain of childbirth. The mental strain we associate with solving a puzzle. The pain of confusion. A stiff winter wind. The searing summer heat and lying awake at night, sweating. A bloody nose dripping rhythmically into the bath tub.

Pain is bad, we think. We wish, don’t we?, that pain would go away. It lingers, this bad thing. It taunts us. We’re not sure that we can get on with life unless and until it makes its departure. We wish some more.

Here is what the Stoic Epictetus has to say about wishing: “Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.” Suppose, instead, that we were to accept the pain in our lives. We needn’t like or enjoy it. We might–which is to say, should–prefer a life without it.

My thought is that we can grant pain its unpleasantness without drawing the conclusion that it’s bad.

“It’s bitter. Just awful, miserable, dreadful.”

“Yeah, it’s a bit unpleasant. I’ll grant you that. It’s a good thing we decided to dress warmly, isn’t it?”

“I hate winter. I can’t wait for spring.”

“But winter’s not going away anytime soon. And magical thinking won’t change that: wishing for spring won’t make it come–at all or any sooner?”

“So?”

“So what remains within our control is how we ‘address’ ourselves to winter, to every day and every season. My discomfort (and yours) is neither good nor bad. It simply is.”