The Tyranny of Pain

For more than a decade I’ve grappled with the task of describing the experience of pain.  Because, as they say, all pain is private.  It is silent, stealthy, generally unverifiable, yet it is the force behind much of human behavior.  To do pain justice I would have to mix a thousand metaphors and mangle the English language to the point of nonsensicality.  Intense pain renders grammar and vocabulary useless because pain itself has no grammar.  It speaks in the language of chaos itself.

So I’m going to approach this task in a roundabout way.  I won’t talk about where I hurt and I won’t rate my level of pain on any kind of scale.  To do so would be meaningless to anyone who is not me.  Instead, I will describe the ways in which pain traps me and limits me, the way it controls my thinking, complicates relationships, and impedes action.  I’m doing this for selfish reasons but also because people everywhere experience pain of some sort, and I would like to think that I can help translate their pain into words and metaphors that anyone might understand.   I won’t focus on any one kind of pain because pain exhibits as many different temperaments as the people who experience it.  But all pain—whether psychological, emotional, physical or spiritual—is at bottom tyrannical.

I used to think of pain as a prison that trapped me within its impenetrable walls.  But I realized that this was a false analogy.  Pain doesn’t trap me from without; it traps me from within.  I feel as if I’m connected to an unbreakable chain that tugs at me.  I may struggle against the chain.  I may lunge outward in an effort to break it and free myself, but always the chain yanks me back.  I may clasp it in my hands and pull until I cry tears of exhaustion in hopes of wrenching the chain from the pain that anchors it.  But again I fail, because the chain issues from pain that is like an invisible black hole that contains the mass of a million suns.

I image that the chain, the singularity of pain to which it is attached, and I are all suspended in an infinite space.  People, places, ideas, and potential courses of action populate this landscape.  Were I not chained to my pain, I would be able to roam freely about this space, interact with whomever I wished, and experiment with the possibilities of life in all of its abundance.  I would run and jump and swim and laugh as I did when I was a boy.  But I can only venture as far as the chain will allow.  If I aggregated the totality of the things I’ve done since I became yoked to my pain, these actions and experiences would describe a perfect sphere whose radius would equal the length of the chain that tugs at me whatever I do.  I may travel far in physical space, but my experiences will always reside within this limiting sphere.

The chain not only limits my freedom of movement, thought and action; it shrinks with time and pulls me closer to the pain that anchors it, so that when I engage with people I can never quite be fully with them.  Even as I struggle to close the gap that separates us, the pain pulls me away.  Pain covets the people whom it afflicts.  It thrives on their loneliness.  It consumes them from within.  It stretches and contorts the soul, bends reality until it cracks and only the tyrant of pain remains.

When I think, I must always fight against the force that yanks me away from the object of my thinking.  Pain mingles with my thoughts and refuses to leave me alone with them.  Pain sabotages reason, patience, and focus.  It manifests itself in a stutter here, a pause there, a wince that an interlocutor might mistake for an expression of annoyance or disinterest.  Pain sometimes turns me into a jerk without my even knowing it.

When I move, when I walk (because I can no longer run), when I chew the juiciest slice of steak or when I plunge head first into a crashing ocean wave, the pain tugs on the chain and snaps me back to the reality it has configured for me.  Pain grows jealous of any sensation that does not include it, and, like the guest at the party who must always be the center of attention, it screams and drowns out the more pleasant feelings as they politely try to redirect the conversation.

Since I was young I’ve been obsessed with order.  I’ve always needed the world and my actions to mean something, to lead somewhere and to have purpose.  I have striven to locate my pain in some kind of structure, but no matter what I build around it, the pain sucks it inward and the whole edifice collapses in on itself.  Pain is a singularity that can’t be contained.  It turns the world inside out and makes a mess of life.

Of course, it is impolite to speak of one’s pain in the company of others.  Such talk is usually met at best with incomprehension, at worst with the sort of skepticism most people reserve for things like magic, or dragons, or depression.  So please forgive me.  I won’t speak of pain again.  But I thought I would take my one shot at saying something meaningful about it, even as I know that to do so is ultimately impossible.  I can no more describe or explain pain than I can describe or explain the whole of creation.  If I sometimes doubt the utility of language, it’s because to this day I’ve failed to find the right words for this thing that troubles me most about the world.

About atomsofthought
Photographer. Traveler. Writer. Reader.

26 Responses to The Tyranny of Pain

  1. Anonymous says:

    Don’t apologize for writing about pain. It is one of the most worthy subjects to investigate and usually teaches us more than pleasure does. The biggest problem I see people having with pain is that they run from it, never examine its reality or its real causes. They won’t be free of it until they see it is a tyrant who shrinks when one faces it, even accepts it. We have to find our own ways to see it for what it is and your writing is a beautiful way to look pain in the face–it longs for love.

    • Thank you. I agree with you and Christine that you have to face it and accept it (what other choice is there?). It’s just a tough thing to pull off, though, right? Especially when pain undermines thought itself. Some lessons I would rather not learn, at least not just yet 😉

  2. Patti Ross says:

    I do not know how to respond with any insight or appreciation. Your analogies are very spot on! Thanks for takig the time and care to present the tyranny of pain.

  3. Pamanner says:

    I’m so sorry. Anyone who has not experience repeated pain or constant pain has no idea what you are describing. I do and life definitely gets altered in ways we don’t want. Here’s hoping for the pain to go. . .for good.

  4. I, too, am so sorry. I think that pain also takes on another, tyrannical dimension, does it not, the grief of knowing this is how it will be from now on. No pun intended, but you really hit a nerve with this one. Thank you for wrestling with the topic and addressing it in your usual elegant way.

  5. Your words are true and, as you see from the responses, your thoughts resonate. Many of us know very personally the tyrant you have difficulty describing.

    I have learned that I can empower myself over that force by letting my art serve as shield and sword. The chain does not have to grow shorter over time. It will not…even if that’s how we see it sometimes.

    If pain is to be your partner, you will coexist by growing together rather than constantly being in battle. No matter the nature of pain – psychic or physical – it needs not to be hidden and worked around. It demands to be heard and will be, one way or another.

    When you were a boy, you dealt with your pain openly and often in your own childish ways…you coexisted. You need to do that again, but use your manly maturity to express it like you did here. Because, bottom line, you felt better after you constructed this piece of writing. So did we who read you. And surely those things brought you a moment of feeling empowered.

    In that case, why would you ever STOP expressing yourself?

    I know this probably doesn’t make sense right now, but over time you will see, will learn to coexist, and your view of the pain will change. I am as inadequate at describing the “hope” of the pain as you are at describing the confinement. But having been in confinement myself, I know pain, people and the partnerships between the two DO evolve.

    • Thank you, Christine. I try to see it that way. But often I think to myself: if pain were a person we would throw him in jail. We don’t talk about finding ways to get along with people when they inflict the kind of brutal harm that the worst pain does. We talk about escaping the abuse and, in the worst cases, bringing to justice the person responsible. Coexisting with pain is a tall order, even if there is no alternative. Still, I agree with you.

  6. “Your usual elegant way.” Amen. Welcome back. Don’t leave us again or we may have to come after you.

  7. My only experience with debilitating pain was when I ruptured a disc in my back. So I understand that people don’t understand, the frustration of not being able to do certain things (or anything), that it effects how you think, your emotions, and how well you are able (or not able) to tolerate the world around you and the people in it. But my pain is minimal now, an irritation, a nuisance at worst.

    So, I have nothing to offer you – my wishing you didn’t have to deal with constant pain does nothing to help you. Patti always says it better, so please read her comment again for me.

    PS: I don’t think it’s bad that you wrote about this, I think it’s good. I hope it’s helpful. Personally, the only reason I have for not wanting to read about your pain, is because it means you’re in pain.

  8. Nicholas Dertien says:

    Strong essay. It is easy to believe that when we use our muse for cathartic purposes that the resulting art/writing/product is self indulgent, which is not usually the case. I believe the opposite, that often the product is a threshold past the mundane small talk that we encounter throughout the day. You wrote in another post that it is important to think about your audience, and I agree. My response however is that you are a teacher at heart and I believe being a teacher can apply outside the classroom. My belief is that you are as justified to use your intelligence and prose to lead your audience to darker philosophy (phenomenological or not) as much as are to lead them on a cross country bus trip. You keep writing your truth and I’ll keep listening.

    • Thank you, Nick. I know that you of all people would understand the relationship between catharsis and art. It’s so good to hear from you, and I’m sorry I haven’t called yet. Your earlier comment really made my day (or week) when I read it. I hold this unshakeable belief that anything that brings a person back to Austin must be a good thing. Boy do I miss living there. I hope you’re where you want to be, doing what brings you fulfillment.

      • Nicholas Dertien says:

        It’s good to hear from you as well! There were a handful of reasons we came back to Austin, but the most important was to be close to family when we decided to have our first kid. It didn’t take long after we got back to Tejas. Dana refers to him as Lil’D, on her blog so I’ll respect that moniker. So, Lil’D is 8 months now, Dana weighed him this morning and he’s 24 1/2 pounds (big boy). I have a studio in east Austin, loving making work. I am having a conflict however, about how my time is allocated, verse not wanting to put Lil’D in day care. Not sure what that means yet, but I do know that I want my family to be my top priority, especially when I compare myself to my older peers who had different priorities at this stage of their lives. Of course I want the dream, a happy family, a healthy lifestyle and a successful art carrier. Hmmm maybe that’s what I should rename my blog, make it a self fulfilling prophesy.

        There was something else that came to mind after I wrote the comment. Probably sparked by skippingstones’s comment about physical pain. Like my art it is a confluence of science research and personal narrative. When I was at RISD I received a very severe burn to my foot. The worst pain I had ever felt and hope to ever fell, but more about that later. Since that night I have read two very interesting articles in Discover magazine, both dealing with memory. To summarize what is relevant here, when an event causes pain (physical, emotion, etc…) the memory of the pain is tied to the events. So that when we remember the event we relive the pain, or the fear caused by the pain. Here is the interesting part, the act of sharing a memory as a story deletes the chemical memory forcing the brain to rebuild the memory when we are done sharing. Explaining why a memory told over and over seems less real then one that hasn’t been recalled in years. Since the night I received the burn, I have retold the events hundreds of times. Usually not the whole story but parts and usually with people I fell safe with and in events that I am having fun. Over time the anxiety and fear caused by that pain was shed as my brain rebuilt the memory not from the original events but tied to the emotions I was feeling when I retold the story. Like everyone I have stories that I do not feel comfortable sharing, so I carry the pain associated with them, but I now understand how, if required I could shed that pain.

        • What??? There’s a Lil’D? Congratulations, Nick, and to Dana too, of course! And what a lucky kid to have you two as parents! Also good news about the studio and the whole move back to Austin. Family is so important (you can quote me; I know that was an insighftul statement).

          Funny you should mention that Discover article. I read that one too, and it gave me a lot of hope. I suspect you and I have similar reading habits, certainly when it comes to magazines. Do you read Scientific American? That’s my favorite science mag.

          So please point me to your blogs (yours and Dana’s). I would love to check them out.

          Oh, and lastly, Skippingstones (Michelle) is super smart, so I’m not surprised that something she said sparked your comment on the confluence of science and personal narrative, and the workings of memory. Enjoy your weekend. Congratulations again 🙂

          • I am super smart. 🙂 Actually, I was thinking how smart Nicholas sounded and wishing I was smart. Is it just the vocabulary? “the confluence of science and personal narrative…” Or are you guys as intelligent as you sound? I am out of my league here.

            But I love Discovery magazine and I’m going to see if I can find that article. The brain is an endlessly fascinating place, isn’t it? I mean, what we feel, what we do, how we react, are so many chemical reactions happening in our brains, neural pathways that we lay and then continue to follow. And yet…I feel. I have thoughts. I can’t possibly be a walking chemical reaction…because I’m me. I have to be more than that. Don’t I?

          • Haha, Nick D. may be as intelligent as he sounds, but I’m smart enough to KNOW that I’m not.

            And I don’t think even most scientists think of themselves as JUST walking chemical reactions. They would say that they’re something more that emerges out of the complexity of those vast neural networks and chemical reactions (“emergent phenomena”). That’s not the only way of looking at things, of course, but I like the idea that when a system reaches a certain degree of complexity, it ceases to be the sum of its parts and becomes something infinitely greater. A flock of birds emerges out of a thousand individuals obeying simple rules that dictate how closely they should follow the bird(s) nearest to them.

            I think this is the article both Nick and I are referring to:

    • Oh, and I agree with you about audience. It’s a little bit of both, right? It’s OK to think about how our words (or art) will affect others, but we also have to listen to the inspiration that originates inside us. Sometimes to do so we have to tune out the external world.

  9. “…I like the idea that when a system reaches a certain degree of complexity, it ceases to be the sum of its parts and becomes something infinitely greater.”

    Not to mix up our conversations, but going back to the lonely moon comments, I would say you’re definitely a romantic scientist. 🙂

  10. Pingback: Responding to Writing and Pain | The Chapel

  11. pattisj says:

    Pain is a popular topic because many suffer with it, and are always looking for answers. It has a way of trying to rule, and some days, it succeeds. I was in its grasp for twelve years before getting a new doctor, and a diagnosis–chronic myofascial pain. It is manageable now, for the most part, but I have to pay attention, and listen to my body.

    • Hey Patty! I think you and I might relate to each other. My worst pain is much like yours in nature, all stemming from my tmj. It’s by far the worst thing I’ve ever experienced, made worse because it so directly impedes socializing, destroys concetration, etc., and treatment is problematic to say the least. I’m happy to know that you have been able to manage your pain! Thank you for your comment. It helps to know that I’m not all alone in this.

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