The Mystery of Pain

Obstetricians and midwives are, at times, unavoidable witnesses to pain; they wade through it, explain it, try to alleviate it, but never experience it because the physical sensation of pain cannot be transferred to anyone else. It is the one constant attendant in the labour room, the uninvited guest that, welcome or not, arrives early and departs late. It is the ghost in the room, invisible to all but the patient. Unsharable. Unprovable. Indescribable except by metaphor, analogy – it is like something: a drill, a knife, a pressure… We all realize it is there -but there, not here. We do not share in the pain; we have to believe it exists because we are told it does. It is not an objective thing, pain; it is entirely subjective –an owned phenomenon.

In a way, pain has no voice. As Virginia Woolf put it [and here I will use Elaine Scarry’s paraphrase and elsewhere, quotations from her extremely helpful book The Body in Pain]: “Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it, bringing about an immediate reversion to a state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned.”

It is a cruel proof of the Theory of Mind: although I realize that you may have different thoughts and feelings from what is in my head, I can only guess what they are; I can never know what they are. Scarry again: “For the person whose pain it is, it is effortlessly grasped (that is, even with the most heroic effort it cannot not be grasped); while for the person outside the sufferer’s body, what is “effortless” is not grasping it (it is easy to remain wholly unaware of its existence; even with effort, one may remain in doubt about its existence …).” And indeed, “… if with the best effort of sustained attention one successfully apprehends it, the aversiveness of the ‘it’ one apprehends will only be a shadowy fraction of the actual ‘it’”.

We can only know something of what the other person is feeling if they can verbalize a suitable metaphor that we all can understand. And given the difficulty of descriptions in the setting of ongoing pain, these can be hard to find, let alone verbalize. Pain Clinics will often use aids such as the McGill Pain Questionnaire that suggest words that do other than merely measure intensity: moderate, severe, or number on a scale of ten, for example. So their vocabulary offers a choice of qualitative descriptions as well as quantitative.

But for most of us following a woman in labour, such questionnaires are unhelpful -and except for the vocabulary, almost useless, in fact. We are still left standing on the outside, trying to sense the existence of something we do not apprehend. It is not like Nietzsche calling his pain ‘Dog’ and saying “it is just as faithful, just as obtrusive and shameless, just as entertaining, just as clever as any other dog –and I can scold it and vent my bad mood on it …” For us, the attendants, this is sophistry.

Pain –the verbal reaction to pain, at any rate- seems to have different ways of expression in different languages, different cultures, even different geographical regions. As Scarry notes: “… a particular constellation of sounds or words that make it possible to register alterations in the felt-experience of pain in one language may have no equivalent in a second language.” And yet it is really all about the same thing, and serves to “… confirm the universal sameness of the central problem, a problem that originates much less in the inflexibility of any one language or in the shyness of any one culture than in the utter rigidity of pain itself: its resistance to language is not simply one of its incidental or accidental attributes but is essential to what it is.”

Empathy, which is as close as an outsider can get to the pain experienced, will have to suffice. Or -far better phrased- Shakespeare’s opinion:

A wretched soul, bruised with adversity,

We bid be quiet when we hear it cry;

But were we burdened with like weight of pain,

As much or more we should ourselves complain.

I suppose it is the ‘why’ of some types of pain that is so puzzling. The etymological root of the word itself is poena: punishment. In the end, is that really what it is: nothing more than an  arbitrary abuse meted out by a blind and indifferent Nature?  We may understand the physiology of pain, the biochemical irritants that cause it, the nerve fibers that fire in response; we may even postulate the evolutionary protective purposes it sometimes purports to serve, and yet… And yet we are still left wondering about more than the physical nature of pain. As Scarry says: “… when one speaks about ‘one’s own physical pain’ and about ‘another person’s physical pain,’ one might almost appear to be speaking about two wholly distinct orders of events… Thus pain comes unsharably into our midst as at once that which cannot be denied and that which cannot be confirmed.”

It is a relief to find that I am not the only one who finds these disparate aspects of pain to be numinous -and the ‘why’ of pain as elusive to others as it is to myself. If the only way to describe one’s own pain, as I have already mentioned, is through metaphor, perhaps the only way to understand pain, then, is also through metaphor. Story. Literature.

Nietzsche once again: “Only great pain, the long, slow pain that takes its time… compels us to descend to our ultimate depths… I doubt that such pain makes us “better”; but I know it makes us more profound… In the end, lest what is most important remain unsaid: from such abysses, from such severe sickness, one returns newborn, having shed one’s skin… with merrier senses, with a second dangerous innocence in joy, more childlike and yet a hundred times subtler than one has ever been before.”

I do not understand Pain, but I do not discount it. I will merely rest my discomfort on another of Shakespeare’s observations: that maybe “Pain pays the income of each precious thing.” It’s a start anyway…











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