Monday, May 6, 2013


Most of us, from childhood, are prey to some sort of chronic discomfort. It’s far short of agony or even pain; it is basically the feeling that something is amiss, not seriously so but just enough to be noticed. Splinters and ingrown nails, joints that twinge, knees that throb, backs that ache; our gastrointestinal system is allergic to wheat, or seafood, or artichoke hearts. Our bodies will not tolerate milk products or strawberries.  Bee stings and peanuts send us to the hospital; a sudden movement means we will be hurting and stiff for days. Exposure to too much sun burns us painfully, to too much heat creates rashes; in frigid situations our functions slow and stop. So we spend a life of being careful, of avoidance of the things we know or suspect can harm us.  We internalize this discomfort and it becomes part and parcel of our daily lives. Without knowing it, we are fortunate: our bodies do not remember pain. We are spared memories of every skinned knee and elbow, and on a much larger playing field, the recollection of pains associated with war, pregnancy or childbirth. This is a natural necessity. What woman would go through more than one labor if she could remember every twinge and wracking agony? And who, recalling the suffering of a serious wound, would want to engage in conflict?

And then, of course, there are the other discomforts, the emotional and psychic ones, the intellectual knowledge that something is not as it should be. We care too much, suspecting but not willing to fully accept that it isn’t the ones who care the most who wield the power, it’s the ones who care least. We develop ulcers, or high blood pressure, or heart murmurs. Sometimes it’s simply angst, that unbearable anguish of life trying to co-exist with the hope that the unattainable will be reached.

We have been created inadequately, it would seem, by a maker who can best be described as an under-achiever; we are the unfinished designs by a being with Attention Deficit Disorder. It’s surprising that we’ve chosen to worship the architect of such flawed corporal entities, yet we do, and essentially beseech it daily to lessen our distress. All that fragility, it’s a hell of a way to live…

What we do to cope is create environments made to muddle through the discomforts. Sometimes it works, mostly it doesn’t. We buy plush homes and plush cars and what we euphemistically call comfort foods.  We seek comfortable relationships and discard those that fall short or do not offer the solace we need. We attempt to swaddle and be swaddled, and this itself furthers discontent. It’s downright amazing, the unhappiness we will suffer to ease a little discomfort. And so we create addictions--to food, sex, drugs, adrenaline and other stimulants or depressants, anything that make us feel good, to relieve that always-there disquiet. To get a little rest from it all.

Addicts of all stripe, if they’ve given the least thought to their situation, will tell you they do what they do because they are uncomfortable, and that at some point the substances they use did indeed relieve their ill condition. In fact, most addicts are constantly trying to re-live that moment--generally at the inception of addiction--when they were free, however briefly of their discomfort.

When he was asked the meaning of life, the Buddha is reputed to have answered, “Life is pain." More recently, Hollywood took up the cry in The Princess Bride. “Life is pain, Highness,” wrote William Goldman. “Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

Who’s going to argue with that?

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