There are two types of pain and suffering: the first is the pain that is done to us; the second is dukkha, mother-fucker, self-chosen suffering; and to quote Johnny Keats ‘in these regions many a venom’d dart at random flies.’
Dukkha is deficiency. The mega-bucket combo deal offered by the will to power leaves us craving more. We are always hungry, forever filled with an insatiable appetite, gorging on sickly sensation, consumed by the raging fever of passion. Because good food is boring food, it is cold food, inedible elven lembras. Desire is hot-hot-hot. Why are we so fascinated by the undead, by zombies, werewolves and vampires? Because we recognise the appetite that drains the lifeblood of the living, and we relish the bite that infects another soul with our own rabid existential sickness.
Suffering works across three axis: the first of these is time. ‘Pain-time’ can be further subdivided into the catastrophic, the progressive, and the constant.
Pain can be a singular event, a moment of crisis that appears out of nowhere and changes our lives forever. In his essay On Sadness, Montaigne reflects on the sudden death of his best friend and describes how he felt his own soul breaking loose from its moorings;
Verily the violence of a griefe, being extreme, must needs astonie the mind, and hinder the liberty of her actions. As it hapneth at the sudden alarum of some bad tidings, when we shall feele our selves surprised, benumbed, and as it were deprived of all motion, so that the soule bursting forth into tears and complaints, seemeth at more ease and libertie, to loose, to cleare and dilate it selfe.
Pain-time can also be progressive. This kind of pain can be hard to define in the beginning, but gradually it builds over months and years: domestic violence, family rifts, issues at the workplace, confusion over sexual identity, the evil of child abuse, religious identity, financial worries.
The catastrophic and the progressive are often bound together – an example being the terminal illness of a loved one. I was supposed to be getting some groceries in town one Saturday afternoon, which, as usual, I did half-heartedly. Instead, I decided to grab some ‘me time’ and catch up with the book I’d bought the week before. I’m a bit of a literary snob, and, as a rule, I’m not into celebrity biographies. I’d bought The Two of Us by Shelia Hancock because I’ve always quite liked Shelia and her husband, John Thaw. It’s an engaging book, and, like any good book, you come to feel like you know the people in it, which made Shelia’s depiction of the night John died from cancer all-the-more impactful. I was sat reading the book in a busy Morrison’s supermarket café, eating pie and chips with tears rolling down my face into the gravy. I keep glancing up, looking around, in case anyone was staring at me or reaching for the phone; ‘Security please, we’ve got some guy crying in the café and he’s scaring the customers.’
When loss comes it must needs astonish the mind, it stuns our soul. In part, we mourn for ourselves. That quality, the one that only our loved one could bring to life in us, is lost. Our sense of loss is multiplied as we see the part they brought out in others is lost too. We miss a presence. Our world is changed, our emotional network is brutally rent, leaving us bleeding and wounded. As those around us suffer we feel their suffering compounding our own.
The third aspect of pain-time is the constant. The drive for change and advancement that is coded into our DNA produces ‘faults’ as well as progress. Many of our brothers and sisters pay the price for our unique human endowment. Mental health is an important subject, both in helping ourselves stay healthy, and in caring for those who are suffering from ‘that which makes us human’. All I know is that there is a duty of care on the rest of us.
Having explored the first axis; pain-time, the second axis of suffering is the intensity we feel. The volume dial is not necessarily set and moves up and down during our lifetime. And, of course, not all pain is sequential. We can get hit by multiple tragedies, multiple issues, all varying in intensity. A crisis may come from one single trauma that is intensely painful, or from multiple sources that gather together, reaching a crescendo that leaves us feeling unable to cope with life.
The value we attach to suffering is the third axis. We are more likely to attach a greater sense of value to our own pain, or that of someone we know and love, than to someone we read about in the local newspaper. A relatively minor ailment in someone important to us may way heavier in our hearts than the life and death struggles of one of our neighbours. Or maybe you are one of the blessed. Maybe the plight of your neighbour weighs heavy on your heart and causes you to move mountains to help them.
I was flicking channels on the TV and caught a programme about people dying from AIDs related illnesses in wretched conditions in South Africa. One nurse in-particular worked hard to keep the patients as comfortable and as well cared for as she possibly could. It was only later in the film that we learned that she too was sick, and that gathering ill health forced her to give up her role of caring for the stricken. We, the viewers, then learned that she had died only a few weeks after she became too sick to care for others. . . and just like the self-made men in the hills in Springsteen’s song Souls of the Departed… I sighed, shook my head, and did nothing.
No doubt, dear reader, you too have your own random venomed darts to deal with, and my philosophical musing and intellectual dissection of the problem of pain will seem rather insensitive in the light of your own and the world’s suffering. But this is serious shit, and our world is gorging on pain…
Pain is used as a tool used by the powerful to reshape us and to reshape our world. Kurt Lewin describes pain as the agent of change in his Forcefield Model. Pain focuses on the equals sign in the equation; not the X or Y. Pain is the accelerator in the will to power…. -2 makes the world go around: redundancies, reorganisations, war, crime, abuse, discrimination, murder – hate, lust, fear, and doubt. Pain liquifies. Pain unmakes. Pain reshapes. Open today’s newspapers and you’ll see the dictators and rulers feeding the people a diet of pain and fear, and the multitudes lapping it up.
But we can fight back, and win, defeat the powerful one person at a time. Viktor Frankl suggests that the ‘tragic triad’ of pain, guilt and death, can be reframed as ‘tragic optimism.’ Frankl argues we can turn suffering into accomplishment, turn guilt into an opportunity to change ourselves for the better, and use the very brevity of life as a spur to take the right actions.
That all sounds great at the conceptual level, all very brave, all very naive. What about the reality of lost love, lost life, lost innocence, lost futures, lost hope? Physical pain warns of an attack on the structure of our bodies. Emotional pain is a challenge to all the structures of love and meaning that support our lives. Existence tests the strength of our defences, it stimulates the antibodies, it wounds, destroys, rebuilds, it changes and challenges. Like most people I want the great joy and the bit of magic in everything; and I fear the great sorrow, the force of extreme sadness, and the loss that evens things out.
We live life on an overdraft: we marry, we have children, we look for love, we play football, we work, we make friends, we expose ourselves to as much joy as possible to enrich our lives. We push for the top end of the emotional spectrum. We expect good things from life. And the cost of that joy is the pain of loss, the repayment that we fear to make. Emotional pain can consume us from the inside out, demolishing the human being that was there before. So why bother?
Pain is dissolution, unmaking. Healing is resolution, remaking. Loss is the singular reality, pain is the undulating dynamic, and what we do about it defines us. Loss is the primary input, pain is the meaning we make from it, pain is aimed at the heart and soul, pain melts, and pain unfreezes our equilibrium. How do we respond? What is our primary and secondary output going to be? Do we respond with W2L? Or do we grasp for the W2P and make our enemies rue the day they ever fucked with us?
If love dies, then I need to protect it, hoard it, kill for it. We must survive, we must be true to the earth. Maybe all the good good people who go to church treat the God of love like the W2P deity of good fortune: God is their route to protect their family and their earthly prosperity. There are no guarantees; only that suffering is the melting caused by the W2P, and love is the melting caused by the W2L.
Frankl argues that the tragic triad of pain, guilt and death can be reinterpreted and transformed into a tragic optimism. Chinese medicine suggests a similar reappraisal of our approach to physical pain. Pain is seen as a messenger from our body that something is not right within us. Rather than ‘kill pain’ or ‘numb pain’ Chinese medicine seeks to identify the cause, treat the cause, and not to be caught up in effect. We westerners are often too busy to identify the root of our pain. We have to work, we look at the floor and see it needs sweeping, we need to pick up the dry cleaning, to get the kids to school, make it to pay day, and so we select options from the vast array of modern painkillers, distracting ourselves from that lingering sense of unhappiness and wasted potential, unwilling to recognise that we are slaves to a machine we created ourselves. Damn that hamster wheel. Yet is the hamster wheel our own avoidant response to the challenge of existential anxiety?
Pain melts, pain is the messenger. We weep for that which has been our joy. But do we want to listen to the messenger? No. Our ideal is a life of security and ‘have now’; instant credit, bullshit crack lit books that promise instant happiness, health insurance, growth investments, consistency and well managed progress. Short cuts yes, but no pain, and most importantly don’t make me think too hard. I don’t wanna change. The shadow says I’m too old to change, this is the way that I am. Pass me the spliff, another drink, turn on the TV, read that book, work late, begin that affair, rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.
Emotional pain is never ‘killed,’ it is only locked in a closet, left banging on the door to be let out. We don’t listen to pain as a messenger. If I listened to pain I might have to change, and if I changed I might have to be uncertain, and if I’m uncertain, god no, don’t even make me go there… No way man, I’ve got a low pain threshold, pass me the ibuprofen with extra codeine, I’ve got a bus to catch. I’m busy, busy, busy. . .
Pain and pleasure, pain and love, melting, reforming, desire, rebuilding, hurting, tearing, healing, peace… Cave of Quietude or Native Hell? that is the question asked by Keats in Endymion.
The relationship between what happens to us and the meaning we create from living is the difference between being a protagonist and being a spectator. The human engine needs tension and connection. Art and secondary output is an area that is of huge importance to mental health, happiness, and to tragic optimism. Art offers the opportunity to creatively transform pain. And the process is as important as the tangible material object at the end of it all. In Duma Key Stephen King describes art as ‘hedges against the night’. I think I know what he means. And I think Montaigne and MacDonald did too… running to stay one front of ‘it’. My ‘it’ is my own W2P, an abomination, and I won’t let it eat me alive. The benefit of art as hedges against the night is that we can up the intensity to match the intensity of whatever it is we are facing into. And that’s why I’m up at five-thirty in the morning writing this shit, trying to keep that hedge in good shape.
We humans are alchemists. The human engine transforms the lead of life’s experience into the gold of love, or the acid of power. We either reframe pain with the W2P, or the W2L. Everything else; shareholder value, next week’s groceries, responding to a terrorist attack, is secondary to this basic human challenge.
Both of Frankl’s parents died in Nazi concentration camps, as did his wife. Frankl suggests that we need to think of ourselves as those being questioned by life. What is our meaning? What is the right action? Boris Cyrulnik’s parents died in concentration camps too, and he builds on Frankl’s existential challenge and talks about ‘inner freedom,’ and resilience as ‘anti-destiny’.
Change comes from our own gentle and mundane experiences, through changing without crisis, from what we are taught by other people. Healing comes from our response to what life asks of us. And our warmth can start to unfreeze the coldness in another, and whilst the decision to come back to life belongs to the individual we can be that shard of sunlight that helps signal the end of a Narnian winter… like Doctor Stone in Philip K. Dick’s Valis. I believe in these unobtrusive miracles, that love unfreezes our equilibrium, that love rebuilds.
Perhaps, dear reader, you and I are held between creation and negation. If the Will to Love let-go of either you or me for one second, then it would be game over. We are not resting, we are dynamic, changing, and now, this moment, is the point of equilibrium. Perhaps our reality is itself unreal.
I have no desire to debate ontological proofs for the existence of cosmic deities, but perhaps the world and the universe are an equals sign (one of many) that hang in equilibrium between creation and negation. Only love can create, because outside of time hatred collapses onto itself to a point of singularity, hating itself and unmaking but unable not to exist (as Tillich tells us, non-being is dependent on the being it negates). Could it be that we are all part of a beautiful simultaneous equation and ours truly is a middle Earth.
If you can accept yourself as an equals sign, then by definition, there is a purpose, and an action that is required to fulfil that purpose.
Pain unfreezes our equilibrium. At this biting point is our content, our wellbeing, our happiness. Being overcomes non-being. The ideal subsumes the idle self. Waste and void: the implications of adopting a will to power are profound, the human cost is incalculable, and it frustrates the hell out of me that we are left at the mercy of psychic charlatans, crack literature, and a consumer military technocracy that treats us as morons.
The problem of pain is a challenge for the whole of humanity. We human beings bury our emotional traumas deep inside. These wounds do not heal. Rather than deal with the pain and reframe it, we separate it and wall it away. We suffer inwardly whilst presenting a brave face to the world. The fragments of -3 that lie like shards of glass in our hearts have got to be healed.
Lewis tells us that the present is the point at which time touches eternity. Norman Maclean writes that ours is not a ‘seeing world’ but a ‘feeling world.’ Our island in the cosmos, Planet Earth, is a feeling world – not an evidence world, not a science world, not a consumerist world, not a military world, not a religious world, not a technological world, not a machine world – it is a feeling world, the world of pain of others and our compassion for them. The sooner we realise this, the sooner we can start to reshape the world.
Love is the connection between our responsibilities to others and what we can be. But we need to choose it. I need to choose it.