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.

Fatal Wanderings: Thoughts on Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild”

Ruth Glacier, Denali National Park, Alaska

*I wrote this in 2006.

Recently I read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild.  Therein Krakauer tells the story of a young man named Chris McCandless who upon graduating from college leaves his family and friends, hits the road in his old Datsun and severs all contact with his origins.  His parents don’t even know he has left until they try to visit him at his former home weeks later.

Into the Wild is that story we all know so well of the youthful vagabond who wanders off into the unknown in search of himself and those old clichés: truth, beauty, and meaning.  And as in every other similar tale, the desperate wanderer believes in his core that his quest is original and that his path is untrodden, that his journey will yield the answers he’s looking for and that solitude will set him free.  He doesn’t know that others have already been where he’s going and that many have not returned.

Chris’s naiveté and youthful enthusiasm fuel a two year trek on foot through the western United States.  He camps in deserts, hops trains and sustains himself on little more than small portions of rice.  Human contact consists primarily of hanging out with vagrants in shanty towns or pausing briefly to earn money at menial jobs.  Chris’s ultimate goal is to hitchhike to Alaska and survive on his own in the bush.  In the end, he makes it to Alaska, and after living for months on berries, roots, birds and squirrels, he dies of starvation–alone.

Somehow, despite how perfect this book is for me and my personality, I managed not to read it until yesterday.  Why “perfect”?  First of all, because I love tragedy; second of all, because for more than a decade I believed, like Chris McCandless, that solitude was the answer to my questions and the salve for my pain.  Only within the last two years did I finally realize that solitude was in fact the source of my problems.  Let me qualify that.  I’ve learned a lot by avoiding people and in many ways have grown as a result.  But in the broader analysis my misanthropy only deepened my wounds and heightened my discontent.  As a direct consequence of my worsening condition, I came to believe even more firmly than ever that distance from others was the solution, so that avoidance became self-perpetuating.  “The farther I go,” I believed, “the closer I’ll come to finding the answers I seek.”  You see, you know you’re in trouble when you believe that the solution to your problem is actually its very cause.

To highlight the pervasiveness of this self-destructive mentality, Krakauer lists a number of other vagabonds who disappeared and eventually destroyed themselves following what they believed was their calling.  In 1981 Carl McCunn, a Texan, starved and froze to death in the Yukon Territory in his attempt to become intimate with nature.  John Mallon Waterman, a skilled climber, was swallowed by Alaska’s Ruth Glacier in April of 1981.  Gene Roselline’s death came later in life.  In 1991, at the age of 49, he stabbed himself in the heart a full thirty years after beginning his experiment with life outside of modernity in Alaska.  And to demonstrate that these personality types have always been with us, Krakauer tells us of Everett Ruess, who forsook society and in November of 1934 ventured into Utah’s Davis Gulch, never to return.

Alaska, between Anchorage and Denali

Certainly, only a minority of such people die, but many of those who remain and who never shake their habits end up miserable and alone.  In short, they don’t find that thing we’re all looking for: happiness.  Happiness has no residence in the desert, nor does it exist in lasting from atop a mountain.  Isolation has its benefits, but only if he who embraces it returns to society after a time and integrates whatever he has gained from his experience into a lifestyle that includes other human beings.

To put it bluntly, people like Chris McCandless may learn a lot from their recklessness, but they do so at the expense of a full and happy life.   Ever notice how people who have a lot of friends and who don’t turn their backs on love are less likely to dwell on those burning questions that often lead to such misery for the loners among us?  It’s no coincidence.  Human contact engenders security and well-being.  It reduces the need to know all the answers.  To most people, that probably sounds like common knowledge.  But whatever some may say, we aren’t all made of the same stuff—at the very least, that “stuff” is arranged differently in each of us, so that what is “common knowledge” to some is foreign to others.

Edward Whymper writes:

Still, the last sad memory hovers round, and sometimes drifts across like floating mist, cutting off sunshine and chilling the remembrance of happier times.  There have been joys too great to be described in words, and there have been griefs upon which I have not dared to dwell; and with these in mind I say: Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are naught without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime.  Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end (Krakauer, p. 200).

Whymper was a mountaineer.  Like most climbers I’ve known, he uses climbing as a metaphor for everything.  His message?  Yes, take risks in life.  Take on dangerous challenges and expose yourself to the elements, but do not do so blindly without an eye toward what may come next.  Pause and consider alternative paths that entail adventure and hold mystery also, yet that are less likely to annihilate you.  Climbing Everest is a legitimate goal for the well prepared, but make the ascent knowing that rock and ice alone never cured anyone of depression.  Try talking to someone first.  Besides, there are other ways to seek transcendence.  Everest isn’t the only mountain out there; it’s just the tallest.

*I was a little more didactic in my writing back when I wrote this… College wasn’t far behind me and I think I was still strongly influenced by writing essays and long analytical papers.  It’s fun to see how your writing and thought process change over time.  Anyway, I thought this post was appropriate since I’m moving tomorrow.