October 17, 2011 26 Comments
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.