Saturday, January 7, 2017

Pain is a great equalizer

So I've been in varying amounts of physical pain for the past 3 1/2 years.  Over the course of my life I  have also had times when I have been in severe emotional pain.  Just 2 hours ago I woke up from a horrible nightmare that left me filled with intense, agonizing, and all-too-familiar inner pain.  The kind of deep, throbbing pain that makes you desperate to do anything to just make it go away and leave you with some remnants of peace.

Pain is an extremely powerful and motivating thing.  And it can actually be beneficial at times. More than that, it's an essential tool for survival for every living thing on the planet.  When you are in physical pain it's telling the brain that a part of your body is broken or in distress and the body goes into immediate earnest action to heal that part.  It sends a signal to your synapses to take your hand off of the hot stove burner so you don't do damage to your skin and nerves.  It helps cuts and bruises get better and hopefully reminds us to walk around the coffee table instead of into it next time.  Physical pain, while painful, is usually temporary, and at some point our neurochemical analgesics hopefully kick in to help relieve us of the pain while our bodies try to fix the problem.

Emotional pain however, is different. It's not caused by a one-time action like a fall or an accident. No, emotional pain is caused by unseen injuries and torments, often inflicted by people we have loved and trusted.  Years of abuse, loneliness, grief, disappointment, despair, frustration, and neglect can result in overwhelming, long-lasting, and often perpetual emotional pain.  It can be worse than physical pain because for some people, it never goes away.

Here's the thing about pain:  It has a mind of its own and no one is safe from it.  It doesn't care about how much money you have, where you went to college, how big your house is, or the height of your position on the org chart at work.  It also has no interest in your goals and aspirations.  Even if you are living your life to the best of your ability, doing what you believe to be right each day and making a positive contribution to the world around you, pain can come at any time and smack you upside the head (sometimes literally) and leave you gasping for breath and searching your soul (and medicine cabinet) for the slightest amount of possible relief.

Everyone, at any time, is at risk, and everyone knows what it feels like.  And from what I've learned, nearly everyone around us is in some kind of pain at any given time.

We're all the same when it comes to pain.  We don't want to feel it, and some of us will go to great lengths to prevent ourselves from experiencing it at all costs. And while this may sound strange, I finally understand why some people participate in destructive behavior.  I am not doing this myself, nor am I condoning it by any means...but at this point, after all that I've been through and continue to go through, I can understand why people turn to certain things to numb or dull their pain.

Why do people get addicted to painkillers?

That's an easy one, because they are in pain.

Why do people get addicted to things like sugar, sex, shopping, gambling, and other activities that release endorphins in the brain and therefore make themselves feel good, even briefly, on a chemically physiological level?

It's actually very simple. They are in pain.

On a  deeper level, why do spouses beat their loved ones?


Why are some people mean-spirited, verbally abusive, vindictive, and take great pleasure in the anguish of others?

One word: Pain.

I knew someone in a loveless marriage who smacked her children, insulted her friends regularly, and was $30,000 in debt from buying shoes and purses at an alarmingly high rate.  I used to think she was just foolish and angry and "didn't have her act together," but now I can see that the main motivator for her actions was pain. Pure and simple. Instead of dismissing her and her behaviors with scorn and disdain, I can now feel empathy for her and the pain she is clearly feeling every moment of every day.

That's the other thing about pain: It's the same for all of us.  If a human being breaks a femur bone, that body will feel acute, excruciating, phenomenally intense pain.  It doesn't matter what color skin covers that body, how many pounds that body weighs, or what special or distinctive abilities that body has.  If the femur bone breaks, in any body, it hurts like hell.

On any given day, in any given moment, probably every single person we come across is in some kind of pain. It might be physical - his back went out earlier from shoveling snow, she has achy calves from overdoing her workout the day before, he or she has an ingrown toenail, or a cavity, or a headache from not getting enough sleep...the list goes on and on and on.  Or, possibly more likely, they are walking around in emotional pain - from deep personal injuries inflicted upon them years ago that they are still carrying around despite their best efforts to get rid of them. The truth is, we all bleed when we're cut, we all know how difficult it is to think clearly when we have a sore mouth, and we all know the debilitating grief and despair that comes from losing someone we have loved.

So what does this mean? Well I believe, on a fundamental level, that we should be kinder to one another.  It doesn't mean that we have to approve of everyone's behavior or accept people's actions when they are wrong and hurtful to others.  Absolutely not.  But maybe realizing the egalitarian nature of pain can make us a little more patient with our fellow human beings when it's clear they are suffering.  Maybe we can all try to cut each other some slack and give people the benefit of the doubt when they are act or react in ways that we might not agree with.

Pain can be a terrible, awful, exhausting and isolating thing to deal with.  And yes, pain thresholds vary so it's difficult sometimes to sympathize with the pain of others.  But from the very first time we fall down as babies we know what pain feels like, and we should remember that every single human being on the Earth knows it too.

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