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.

Writing is a Hopeful Act

Writing is a hopeful act.  Words assume that someone will read them, even if that someone is an older version of the person who put pen to paper in the first place.  Often we write to our future selves.  What else is the purpose of a journal?  Sure, we’re conversing with ourselves in the present.  But most of us write with the intention eventually of reading what we’ve written.  We want to know who we were when we were younger, so we record our thoughts as artifacts of our younger years to be excavated when we’re ready.  Despite the clarity of our thinking in the moment of writing, the words of our younger selves sometimes make no sense, and as with any excavation, we often are forced to guess at how the pieces of our younger selves fit together.  Sometimes we don’t recognize the person we were.  He is an alien to us.  He was meaner, more arrogant, maybe a little smarter, less jaded, more wide-eyed.

I steal often from my younger self.  He had ideas that would never occur to me now that I’m older and more set in my ways.  He had an open mind.  Mine is somewhat closed.  If things don’t interest me right away, I’m more likely now to give up on them than when I was younger.  Because I assume too often now that whatever seems new is really a dressed up version of something old.  Which is to say that I’m suspicious of everything.  Suspicion, taken too far, stifles thought and creativity.  Suspicion shuts the brain down.

My younger self recorded his ideas expressly so that older versions of him would be able to draw on them for inspiration.  So he has no right to become angry at me now for lifting his ideas.  I’m doing what he and I agreed to do.  We’re fulfilling our bargain.  But it’s still theft of a sort.  He and I share a name, but we aren’t the same person.  I’m not sure it would occur to me to write now what he wrote then.  He didn’t care that his thoughts were random and would impact no one, maybe not even himself.  It didn’t matter.  He had yet to feel that every action and every statement required an explicit purpose, a practical application, preferably one to which money was tied.  He just wanted to think, and that was enough.  Someone who shares my name but who was ten years younger wrote the following words:

A: What do you think of as you fall asleep?

B: I think about all the tasks I have to do the next day and I worry over those that I had to do that day.  Sometimes I preoccupy myself over weighing too much.  Other times, I wonder how I’ve performed in the eyes of my peers and I stress over the impressions I’ve made.  More than anything, I get frustrated over how I can never get to sleep.  What do you think about?

A: Some of the same.  But I also spend a lot of time thinking about the distant past: people I’ve known, places I’ve been, occasions that I enjoyed. . . I wonder where those people are and how those places have changed with time.  I think of the distant future as well and long for a time when I’m older and life’s experiences have made me wiser.  Often I review the day that’s coming to an end.  I ask myself if I treated people with love and respect.  I note instances when my anger got the better of me or when I said the wrong thing and I vow never to make those same mistakes again.  I contemplate a book that I’ve been reading, toss ideas around in my head, imagine what’s happening in other parts of the world to people I’ll never know.  I dwell on the incessant pain in my back and neck, but then I remind myself that hundreds of millions of people have it worse.  Finally, I try every night to remember that it’s a beautiful world that we live in. . . Oh, and I also get frustrated over how I can never get to sleep.

Is Age the Enemy of Ideas? Age vs. Youth, Wisdom vs. Naiveté

I wrote the following about seven years ago, when I was twenty-three.  I was kind of obsessed then with growing older and what that would mean for how I saw and thought about the world.  I remember coming across an essay by Alan Lightman, a physicist turned novelist and essayist who most famously wrote a beautiful little book called Einstein’s Dreams.  In his essay Lightman explored the relationship between youth and the productivity of physicists.  He lamented that most physicists do their best work while they’re in their twenties and thirties, after which their ideas peter out and, as Lightman suggests, they become largely irrelevant to the advancement of science.  Below is an excerpt of Lightman’s essay, followed by my naive thoughts on it:

 The limber years of scientists, as for athletes, generally come at a young age.  Isaac Newton was in his early twenties when he discovered the law of gravity, Albert Einstein was twenty-six when he formulated special relativity, and James Clerk Maxwell had polished off electromagnetic theory and retired to the country by thirty-five.  When I hit thirty-five myself, I went through the unpleasant but irresistible exercise of summing up my career in physics.  By this age, or another few years, the most creative achievements are finished and visible.  You’ve either got the stuff and used it or you haven’t. . .

Why do scientists peak sooner than most other professionals?  No one knows for sure.  I suspect it has something to do with the single focus and detachment of the subject.  A handiness for visualizing in six dimensions or for abstracting the motion of a pendulum favors a nimble mind but apparently has little to do with anything else.  In contrast, the arts and humanities require experience with life, experience that accumulates and deepens with age.  In science, you’re ultimately trying to connect with the clean logic of mathematics and the physical world; in the humanities, with people.  Even within science itself, a telling trend is evident.  Progressing from the more pure and self-contained of sciences to the less tidy, the seminal contributions spring forth later and later in life.  The average age of election to England’s Royal Society is lowest in mathematics.  In physics, the average age at which Nobel Prize winners do their prize-winning [usually for work that began in their twenties] is thirty-six; in chemistry it is thirty-nine, and so on. . .

. . . I hold no illusions about my own achievements in science, but I’ve had my moments, and I know what it feels like to unravel a mystery no one has understood before, sitting alone at my desk with only pencil and paper and wondering how it happened.  That magic cannot be replaced. . .

– Alan Lightman, Dance for Two

The short span of a physicist’s productive career has always fascinated me. What is the reason for its brevity?  I think that Lightman touches upon an answer to this question.  At the heart of physics is a yearning to understand, to explore the unknown,  to discover.  In this circumstance, the value of youth is that it is less clouded by experience.  Youth lacks the prejudices and preconceptions that must of necessity accumulate as one ages.  In a discipline where groundbreaking solutions often defy everything we thought we knew about the world, the fresh perspective and exuberance that often go along with youth are invaluable.  Something that Lightman doesn’t mention is the vehement criticism the older physicists of Einstein’s time directed at his theories of relativity.  A large part of the physics community dismissed his theories as nonsense.

The older we get, the more we must try to fit things into a framework for life and for reality that we’ve developed over time, whereas in our youth we’re still in the process of creating that framework.  In general, that our framework becomes more rigid as we age is not a bad thing.  In many cases–perhaps even most cases–that framework survives because it works.  It is the product of a lifetime of taking in and processing an overwhelming load of experiences.  In short, it is the result of years of trial and error.  This may be an oversimplification, but there is a grain of truth to it.

Oftentimes the youth of a culture are the primary catalyst for change, while the older generations are a check against that change.  Each serves an important purpose.  On the one hand, the young infuse a society with adaptability, while the old serve as a break against excessively radical change.

My greatest fear in aging is not that I’ll lose my athleticism or my youthful appearance.  Rather, I fear that I might forget what it’s like to experience something for the first time.  For every experience that I have–both good and bad–the realization rests in my mind that I’ll never again repeat that experience.  I’ll never again know with total fidelity how it made me feel: how it made my heart race, or my adrenaline flow. . . or how it brought me to tears of joy or tears of sorrow.  I fear losing the ability to see things in the world that don’t fit my framework, my paradigm.  I fear losing novelty, of living without the sense of awe and childlike wonder at this world that make life worth living.  Perhaps the greatest challenge in aging is balancing the fruits and insights of experience with the chaos and novelty of youth–of becoming wiser, but not at the expense of our openness to new things.

*I don’t know about that story I wrote in my last post.  I was trying to capture that feeling of experiencing something (the ocean) for the first time, and in particular doing so with someone for whom the experience is not new.  Except that in the story, the experience of seeing the ocean is new for both the father and the son for different reasons.  For the son, the ocean is new because he has never seen it.  For the father, the novelty lies in seeing the ocean for the first time WITH his son, sharing it with him, and allowing him to interpret it as he likes, as a child might.  I kind of rushed it yesterday, even though it’s something I’ve thought about writing for a while.  Don’t know if it worked!  I’ll probably post more fiction here and there for fun… I think?

Explaining Myself

For some reason people who don’t know me very well think that I’m an organized person both in thought and in action.  My apartment must be clean and tidy.  My filing cabinets must be filled with well labeled folders whose contents are accessible within mere seconds should I need them.  Yet what these people see is only the outer manifestation of an inner chaos.  But how can chaos give way to the appearance of organization?  Let me explain.

I am a pack rat in the truest sense.  I collect words.  I collect thoughts.  I collect feelings and memories.  I discard nothing, at least not with intent.  On my computer I have every document I’ve ever saved since I was in 5th grade.  My physical surroundings are no different.  Throughout my bedroom books lie in thick disorganized stacks.  Others rest neatly on shelves, yet without any discernible system of classification by author or discipline. 

My outer and inner worlds are essentially the same.  In my mind conflicting ideas float around and clash continually.  No one idea is able to claim any permanent victory over the rest.  These ideas play off of each other and merge and recombine like DNA molecules that lack an overall blueprint, so that the general appearance is of chaos and confusion.  Out of this disordered morass of contradictory and competing thoughts and beliefs a few particles of clarity percolate to the surface.  It’s as if through incessant recombination some ideas were able to glom onto others that are compatible, thereby forming the beginnings of a system of thought that can be applied to the outside world.  Yet most of what is in my head remains mere noise that threatens to destroy the conceptual edifices that have taken so long to erect. 

Example: for much of my childhood I grappled with the task of organizing and defining my personal philosophical system.  I had a vague sense of direction throughout, but I lacked a complete system that I could articulate and formalize.  All I had were a lot of questions, many more possible answers, and an ineffable feeling about the world and my place in it that I couldn’t convey to others.  It wasn’t until high school that my thoughts coalesced so that I could work out an organized framework that I might convey to the outside world.  This framework that I had worked so hard (or waited so long—I don’t know if it’s accurate to call the process “work”) to form was far from solidified.  It would undergo continued modification and retooling, but the core of my outlook on the world was there, and finally I understood it. 

How I came to my philosophical outlook is an extreme case, but a similar process is in motion on a smaller scale with nearly every conclusion or claim that I make.  When I say that a mountain is beautiful, I say so not only out of a spontaneous sense of awe that is unavoidable when I’m in the presence of something so immense.  I apply a notion of beauty that I have formed over twenty-seven years.  It is a notion that has been informed by science, literature, philosophy, the arts, pop culture, experiences with friends and family and strangers.  Everything I’ve come into contact with, whether frivolous or serious, has played a part in my definition of beauty. 

 Yes, the mountain is beautiful because it is enormous and is covered with bright white snow and threatens to tear the sky in two with its jagged ridges.  But more than anything it is beautiful because it is a visible record of the immense past.  It speaks of earthquakes and uplifting events, ice ages, and rivers and streams cutting through the land to form deep canyons.  It is a record of extinction events and the rise of new species to fill niches that come and go as the mountain changes in character.  Particles of the mountain exist in all of the oceans of the world and in fertile valleys that yield crops which are essential to our survival.  The mountain represents ubiquity and interconnectedness.  Such beauty exists in all things, but not always so immediately as in a majestic mountain. 

Such is my thought process for a lot of things, not just beauty, which I grant is actually quite a heavy philosophical theme.  What I’m trying to convey is that even simple decisions like how to engage in small talk can be just as involved as determining what constitutes beauty.  I’m selectively methodical and meticulous, not because I’m a master of organization, but because it’s all I can do to overcome my intrinsic sense of confusion.