The thing about pain

I’ve always been intrigued by the concept of pain. What is its purpose? Why does biology allow something so crippling into our genetic makeup? From a young age until early adulthood pain terrified me. I dreaded trips to the dentist or orthodontist months before they were due. I would pass out or throw up when faced with needles. The thought of having to undergo surgery would tie my stomach in knots and leave me in cold sweats. The sight of my own blood would give me nightmares for days.

Is it just me what felt this way? I don’t believe so. I’ve met and heard of countless others who have had similar experiences and many who have had it worse. But what is pain, exactly, and what is its purpose?

A few years ago a recurring lump on my face was diagnosed to be a type of congenital vascular disorder for which treatment was virtually impossible. The nature of the disorder means that it will get progressively worse over time. In the long term the prognoses is undetermined, ranging from a best-case scenario of worsening facial deformity, with little other medical complications to a sudden and fatal bleed or heart attack. For the short term what it means for me is that I live with nearly constant pain. The physical pain brought on by the condition itself and the emotional pain of seeing my progressively worsening deformity in the mirror every day. To my younger self, who so dreaded a trip to the dentist, it would be like being trapped in a nightmare. Thankfully with age I got over the irrational side of my dread and can now deal with only the rational aspects of managing pain.

While I by no means wish to feel sorry for myself it is natural that having pain become second nature to you will lead to a lot of contemplation on the subject itself. So what is it exactly? It seems science isn’t exactly sure either. It can be physical or mental, real or imagined, indicative of a problem or arbitrary. It has been studied by doctors and philosophers. The thing about it which most people agree on is that its unpleasant.

The next question is does it serve a purpose? The obvious answer is that pain serves as the body’s way of letting you know something is wrong. It tells you that you are hurt so that you can take action to prevent further injury to yourself. This can be applied to physical and emotional pain. Certainly in my youth my dread fear of pain lent me a caution though which I have never broken a bone or received a stitch outside of a scheduled surgery in my life. Then again, though, creatures such as lobsters and jellyfish don’t feel pain and they are biologically immortal. There are, of course, medical conditions which leave the person unable to feel pain. People who suffer from CIP (congenital insensitivity to pain) have to lead carefully controlled lives to prevent them succumbing to unnoticed injuries and illnesses. Lobsters can regrow their limbs, after all. Humans can not.

So while the nature of pain may be abstract its necessity for our survival is indisputable, at least physically. Psychological pain seems to be part and parcel of experiencing emotions. There are conditions which cause people to feel no emotions, and therefore no emotional pain, but these are associated with an array of psychotic disorders as well. Pain in all its forms is just a part of being human.

If we cannot escape pain, or even hope to and still remain human, can we harness it into something constructive? Something creative? Pain and art seem to be intrinsically linked to the extent that the “tortured artist” has become a trope in popular culture. A slew of artists, writers, actors and musicians had led lives filled with strive and grief before their craft brought them into the limelight.

To feel pain is to be human, and to be be vulnerable. Perhaps those who feel pain more acutely than most are simply more open to the human experience and are thus able to more easily capture this condition through the creative arts than the average person. I’m not exactly sure why the link exists, but as someone yearning to weave a tapestry with the strokes of a keyboard, I’m willing to give it a try. Keeping busy helps get one’s mind off the pain anyway.