Thursday, July 7, 2011


This week I managed to sustain two tiny injuries—a knife cut and paper a paper cut—that hurt like hell for a few minutes, then pretty much vanished. Both bled far too much for such inconsequential damage.  I bandaged them with skull and crossbones Band Aids on top of Neosporin (the yellow ducky ones seemed inappropriate and I am well aware that Theodore Roosevelt supposedly died of an infection in his leg) and started thinking about the nature of pain.

There hasn’t been a lot of physical pain in my life. The most I have felt all at once was following an accident while riding a motorcycle at night coming back from Canada. I hit an eight-point stag in Great Bear National Park, flew over the bike, landed on my back, slid,  then the bike caught up with me and slithered over and past my chest. I was conscious the entire time and the pain, great floods of it, washed over me. It started at my ankles, rose to knees, flourished in my hips, traveled up through my spine, snapped at my neck and wound up concussing me. I passed out.

In my late 20s, I fell off a roof, landed on a Coke machine and broke a few ribs. In the non-accident category, the single worst moment was a steroid shot in the joint of my shoulder to alleviate a bout of bursitis. That really, really stung. I’ve also been bed-ridden a time or two by back spasms.

Pain is how our brain tells our body to stop doing something harmful. The body does not remember pain, and that makes perfect sense. If it did, no woman would have a second child, no one would go to war or run downhill or dive off the high board. If we remembered every scrape, cut, twist, sprain, strain and wrench, we would stay at home, ensconced in pillows and thick blankets, unwilling to brave the outside world on the chance we might get hurt. We would not drive, remembering the whiplash injury when the Korean woman rear-ended our car. We would not play football, or ride horses, or ski, or face an 80-mile-per-hour serve from a tennis adversary bent on causing us harm. Probably we would not climb stairs (that fall was nasty) or cook (that burn was nasty) or plant tomatoes (that wasp sting was nasty.)  

The mechanics of basic physical pain are fairly primitive, and it has been used to coerce, persuade, threaten, atone. It is a tool of war, politics and religion and we are familiar with its effects from the earliest childhood. Most of us fear it while some seek it as a gateway to a separate reality. Pain heralds both our arrival and departure; it is at the beginning and at the end. 

CS Lewis once wrote: Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains; it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.

Personally, I like the more succinct two words once uttered by Lucy in Peanuts: Pain hurts.

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