“Aging is not for sissies.”
As I write this, I am in pain.
Something is strangling the sciatic nerve that runs through my hip and down my leg. When I stand up, I stumble with momentary weakness as the nerve responds to the change in spinal position. Instinctively I curl the leg, twisting it inward to protect it, like cradling a baby animal gently. It is literally a pain in the ass.
My pain is not serious, although it is mildly debilitating and annoying. I will fix it eventually (I hope). I have no clear suspects, but the sacroiliac joint is looking a bit shifty, and it did take out a multimillion dollar insurance policy on the sciatic nerve just last week…
In the meantime, this has been a learning experience. And I have been pondering the nature of pain.
Pain is a highly subjective experience. While there are biological markers of pain in the body, our awareness of pain can be altered by gender, individual makeup, our psychological state, mental and physical stress, distractions, and a host of other things. Pain without physical origins can manifest itself concretely – workplace demands translate into a headache; emotional trauma becomes pins in our abdominal cavity. Conventional medicine has long been troubled by the challenge of pain, because it often defies the symptomatic fixit approach. People whose limbs have been amputated often continue to feel sensation and pain in the appendage that no longer exists. Pain may occur without observable damage. It may persist after the tissues have healed. The body is like the proverbial elephant that is slow to forget. People may move or act in a manner that avoids pain for years after the original trauma.
“Pleasure reaches its maximum limit at the removal of all sources of pain. When such pleasure is present, for as long as it lasts, there is no cause of physical nor mental pain present – nor of both together.” –Epicurus
Women, in particular, have often been accused of faking certain kinds of pain, or told that it is “all in our heads”. Well, pain is in everyone’s heads. Without a central nervous system, we could not perceive pain at all. We could, at best, respond like amoebae to stimuli, pulling away from something noxious without knowing why. Our simian brains allow us to respond more fully to pain, and to reflect on its implications.
“[Pain] removes the veil; it plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul.”
–CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain
According to Viktor Frankl, the renowned psychotherapist and Holocaust survivor, with meaning, suffering can be endured with dignity. Often, argues Frankl, we are asked to renounce our pain, to put a brave face on things, and to be “courageous”. However, this denies the respect and acknowledgement that should be accorded to pain. This is not to say that we are required to wallow in it, but rather, that pain is a fundamental human experience that requires a certain sort of psychic digestion. Likewise, the existentialist Martin Heidegger suggests that the experience of pain for the existential self is a movement towards authenticity. However, Frankl cautions against focusing too much on our own motivations and interests, arguing that this creates a “collective obsessive neurosis” in which we turn inwards without contemplating our relationships to others and the outside world as we navel gaze into oblivion.
The other possibility, of course, is that there is no point to pain. There is no meaning. Attempting to find meaning in randomness may amount to the quest for a left-handed screwdriver (or, as the Southerners say, a snipe hunt). People often struggle to ascribe meaning to suffering, but the logic of this struggle can be convoluted. We hope that there is some kind of plan or bigger picture, but what if there is not? What if we are less than the sum of our parts, and our pain is nothing more than chemical markers of disorder?
This latter point is currently what is troubling me. I know what is happening to cause my pain, but I don’t yet know why. My previous injuries have all had a clear cause, and that was usually being stupid and careless in the gym. Like Gregor Samsa in Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, who wakes up one day to find that he has been transformed inexplicably into a giant insect, I literally woke up one morning with this pain.
It is the failure of explanation that often hurts the most.
Update 1: I’ve tried a chiropractor and an acupuncturist, whom I mentally refer to as Cracky and Poky, respectively. I have discovered may be the only person in the universe for whom acupuncture not only doesn’t work, but in fact makes it worse. The chiro, however, is a different story. She folds me up and jumps on me. Afterwards we talk about feminism. It’s like the perfect relationship. Apparently, dear readers, I “crack well”. I hope you are all jealous. *preening*
Update 2: On March 10, a few days after I posted this rant, the following editorial appeared in the Globe and Mail.
Run, run, run because you can
by Sarah Levis
On a trip to the garbage room in my apartment building one morning, in the early hours, when a few of the other tenants are just starting to rise, I stopped in the hall. I ran my right hand, my “good” hand, along the wooden banister mounted on the wall. I do not remember what I was thinking, or where the irrepressible urge came from to suddenly move, but I found myself lurching as fast as I could down the hallway. And my left leg, which has limped its way through life since I had a stroke at the age of 22, fell into step with my right, in a clumsy, running gait. For the first time in nearly five years, I ran.
Movement is one of the freedoms we take the most for granted. It is viciously tangible and absurdly simple. It is energy, both kinetic and potential. It is precision and beauty, whether it’s lifting a finger or performing a pirouette. It is infinite; your body is always moving in some way, no matter how still you think you are. Control of one’s body and its movements (the voluntary ones, at least) is one of the few things in life over which one has absolute control; it is the very mechanism by which we do what we want to do, get where we want to go. When you get right down to it, if we do not move, we die.
Small wonder that we start to feel mournful and frightened, even panicked, the moment the smallest part of our movement is compromised. It is a complete reversal of the universal order. I want to move, and I do. Obviously, it is more complicated than that; there are physiological processes at work, but I am mostly unaware of them. I only know that I want to move, and I do. How miraculous is that? How wonderful is that?
So miraculous and so wonderful that one can only be fully aware of it when one desperately wants to move and cannot.
The reasons could be due to restraint or biology, and they may be with good or ill intent; it does not really matter. We see the ability to move as a fundamental right; to have it taken away temporarily, even for a very brief period, seems an assault on our freedom, on the essence that defines who we are. An uncomfortable regression occurs, in degrees varying with each case, to the infant state of having little or no control over what is done to us. Reduced personal independence, so highly valued in our culture, and forced acceptance of an uncomfortable state of vulnerability is the cruel double blow attached with restricted movement. It is the work of two lifetimes collapsed into one what may be a very small space of time: learning to ask for help and learning to trust that people will give it.
You can’t move. You will cry and you will get angry, because everything changed and you did not want it to, and you’re scared of what changes are going to be in store. You will feel sad at your losses; perhaps your mobility will be affected, perhaps your career, perhaps even your ability to talk or eat, or to take care of your daily needs. As you face life now, life as it has become, each day the stark uncertainty of the whole business grabs you and holds you in the now.
Perhaps you have never been there before; it may feel odd to realize that neither dwelling on the past nor trying to project into the future of your new life will change the present moment, the moment in which you cannot move.
But you are moving. You are tunnelling, tunnelling, tunnelling to the core of you to find the part that still moves even when you cannot tunnel any more. It is terrifying, but if you can believe, just a tiny bit, that your ability to move your life is not contingent on your ability to move your body, you take a tiny step back into the world of the living and a giant step toward discovering the true nature of your humanity. The truth is that our bodies do not move us; we move despite them.
Strip away the use of my arms and legs, perhaps even of my vocal cords or the muscles in my throat. You cannot stop the stirrings in my soul, the ever-present motion in my heart that reminds me that I am loved despite my physical disabilities, that I, too, can love, and that I need to love. You cannot stop the gentle dance of my spirit that prompts me to reach out to others in compassion, and to live in gratitude for those who have reached out to me. You cannot change my growing conviction that not only do our bodies need movement and constant change to survive, but that our lives do as well — perhaps even more so.
I only just started to run again a couple of weeks ago. I’m seeing now that I never really stopped. The part of us that makes us who we are runs faster and freer than the wind, and we can always choose to run with it.
Odds ‘n’ sods:
Yes, we know that photos are airbrushed, but it’s still a bit breathtaking to see just how much an attractive woman needs “fixing” for a magazine after her photo is taken after hours of makeup, styling, good lighting, and skilled photography. Check out one example of a digital airbrusher’s work, and roll the mouse over the photos to see before and after.
I have decided to start my own modelling career as of now. I figure I’ll just let the artists airbrush in twelve inches of height and get me down to a svelte 48 lbs with DD breasts. While you’re at it, guys, give me a tail. I always wanted a tail.