ON PAIN AND SUFFERING

ON PAIN AND SUFFERING

A recent bout of toothache both before and after dental treatment made me reflect on the characteristics of pain.

Firstly it is not easy to define – although everyone has experienced it.   I do not quite agree with Dr Johnson, who said, ‘Those who do not feel pain seldom believe that it is felt.’     Generally, the difficulty is not in recognising that an individual is in pain, but rather in assessing what kind of pain and to what degree they are suffering.    There is no way of telling whether someone bawling and screaming is in greater pain than someone hunched and silent.   There are some physical signs – pallor, sweating – but these are not the inevitable or the only companions to pain.

There are different kinds of pain.    There is the intense blue white pain when you stub your toe badly, or are hit by some object – but mercifully this is generally short lived.   There is the persistent dull red pain of a long term injury or sprain.   There is droning lasting pain, and short sharp stabbing pain.     But when a  medic asks you to rate your pain 1 – 10, he has no way of telling whether your 3 would be another person’s 6.    Pain is a solitary experience.   There’s no question of us all being in it together and George Osborne suffering too.    (More’s the pity.)     With pain, you’re all on your own in the darkness.     Actually, I’ve always found, notwithstanding the care and kindness of husband, family and friends, a great comfort came from the family pets who seem to have an instinctive empathetic awareness of one’s distress, just as they themselves are touchingly grateful for your care of them in their illnesses.

Some pain encompasses one’s life like a tight ring.    If every breath pains you, then you can’t see beyond your next breath.

Emily Dickinson put it rather elegantly:

Pain has an element of blank;

It cannot recollect

When it began, or if there were

A day when it was not.

It has no future but itself,

Its infinite realms contain

Its past, enlightened to perceive

New periods of pain.

Gripped by pain, you can’t think; you can’t talk; you can’t decide on anything.   You just want to lie there and not move so as to escape the pain.

When I broke my hip, in the immediate aftermath I experienced bouts of pain, accompanied by violent shaking, interspersed with short periods when there was a brief respite from this.   Since I have had Parkinson’s Disease for over 14 years, and shaking can be part of the condition, I assumed this was connected with my illness, but have since learned it is a perfectly normal reaction to shock.

I have experience of two other types of pain – that associated with childbirth, and of migraine.

The pain of childbirth is always mitigated by the hope that it will have a positive outcome – the birth of a live and healthy child.   Everyone has a unique experience of course, but in my view the fact that there is a pattern to labour pain makes it easier to endure.    Contrary to those old films where the lovely heroine clutches her belly in sudden collapsing agony, in my experience the first pain is so mild and passes so swiftly you doubt if it was really present.    But very slowly the contractions build up and speed up until the pain is like a band tightening round your belly and clutching at your throat.   But I found that when I got to the stage that I’ve thought, I really can’t stand much more than this without drugs; suddenly you were in the final pushing stage which is not painful, just hard.

My other experience is of the pain of migraine and that too had a pattern.   I suffered these from my teenage years to my early fifties.   They commenced with a feeling of well being and euphoria.   If ever I thought, I feel wonderful, I would think, Oh no!   I have always had acute hearing, but in the day or so before a migraine this would become so incredibly enhanced it was an affliction.   I could hear the conversation in the office in the floor above me.   In a large restaurant, if I concentrated hard, I could listen in to any conversation in the room.   (For this reason it is prudent to be guarded in what you say.   Persons with normal hearing have absolutely no idea what some people can hear.)   This became an unbearable overload of ‘input’ and then the pain would begin, very slowly as a dull ache behind one eye.   Once the process was underway, there was no stopping it.   Painkillers would perhaps take the edge off it, but it had its own inexorable progress.   Pain would build up gradually over 2 days rising to a crescendo when one had to retire to a darkened room and lie as still as possible.   Sometimes one would vomit at the peak, and crawling to a lavatory and being sick while having a headache of such intensity was not an experience to be undertaken lightly.    Then the pain would slowly diminish over two days.   Finally for a day or so one didn’t ‘have’ the headache but it hovered above one’s head and one felt very fragile.  At last it would depart and one would be pain free for some weeks.   The whole migraine lasted for about a week, and painkillers enabled you to function, more or less, apart from the period of high intensity where you absolutely could not function, but that lasted for  about 4 hours at most.

At the present time I have lower back pain, probably at least in part related to the drugs I take to help with my PD.   I walk through a wall of pain every morning, which is sometimes quite an effort to contemplate before tackling.    The pain is never entirely absent, but it eases somewhat through the day.    It would be easy to succumb to depression about this, but fortunately I have an optimistic disposition (and in truth much of the time it is well within what is tolerable.)

I absolutely hate consulting anyone, or having people near me or looking at me.  I can remember as a child of under school age going into a violent paroxysm of rage because my mother had been so bold as to consult a doctor without prior discussion with me, and her understandable astonishment at this reaction.   Of course this instinct just to crawl off to a dark place and endure until it gets better is not always the wisest policy nor is one’s judgement necessarily at its best at such a time.  But eventually either it gets better or the pain (or your companion) forces you to seek help.   Everyone’s reactions are quite different.   My GP told me that some patients turned up in his surgery every time they sneezed, but he obviously also thought waiting until one was (possibly) at death’s door was hardly sensible either.   Never the less, even though I only consult them under duress, I am very grateful to the medical team that supports me for without their advice and care my life would be much less full and satsifying.    Also they put up with my foibles and eccentricities with tolerance and good humour!

Of course an emotional pain, though not perhaps initially physical, is no less distressing.   We have all stood smiling in our place, have we not, while some deadly blow has struck at our heart?   Your lover has been unfaithful;  someone you cherished has died;  your friend has betrayed you.    You may give no external expression to your hurt, yet within you feel mortally wounded; bleeding internally;  about to die.   You won’t of course (not yet.)   You’ll live and suffer.    I find at these moments thinking and feeling functions split; and the Thinker, still coolly functioning, says to the Feeler, who is collapsing in slow motion:  “We can’t deal with this now.   Hold it together until I can get us to a safe place.”   That moment is like standing alone on the  sands, watching a giant tsunami approaching and realising it’s too late to run.

Never the less there are some positive aspects to pain.   It draws our attention to a problem which left unattended might prove fatal.    There’s the blessed relief, the wonderful reprieve, when it stops.   And it’s undeniably true that we learn more in pain and adversity.   For one thing, you learn of the kindness and generosity of others, and the charity of receiving.

As someone who (within the bounds of being mostly of normal health) has endured quite a lot of pain, I wonder if having a type of constitution or personality that is sensitive to experiences, can intuit as it were quite delicate things – whether that general delicacy of sensation  or fine calibration to matters not always easily discerned – whether that goes with a tendency to experience pain?     For me, not having that sensitivity to movements and subtleties around me would be like stumbling through the word blind and deaf.    I would not relinquish the tendency to pain (though I will do everything sensible to alleviate it) for a more robust but less reactive  personality.    You have to take the rough with the smooth.      I’ve had more than my entitlement to smooth so all in all, I have no complaints.    My feebleness of flesh may be a poor thing, but it is my own.

If we had no pain or bad times, how would we know the good times when they came, or be able to truly appreciate the days of well being and rejoicing?   However, if anyone has any suggestions to help with my back pain, I’m listening!

Advertisements

Flame flickers in darkness

FLAME FLICKERS IN DARKNESS

I’ve noted before that you need to be feeling confident and bold in order to blog.   Mostly this is how I do feel.   But this week, anxiety over Elisabeth and Rob (safe for the meantime in Shanghai) plus horror and sympathy for the Japanese over the terrible events which have overtaken them – not to mention dreadful things happening in many other parts of the world – have laid me low.

Then you no longer feel that the earth is a lovely place which we are privileged to inhabit;    that the guardian spirits of your world stand four-square where they should;  and that all will be well –  which is how I usually feel, more or less.    You think, if you had to choose a country upon which a dire misfortune would fall, it wouldn’t be Japan.   Actually I can’t think of any nation at all wicked enough that you would select, but at any rate, it wouldn’t be Japan.    I found the Japanese polite, kind and helpful, although I am not sure their obedience, respect for authority and unwillingness to lose face, though it means there is no mass panic, serves them well in the present circumstances.   Anyone who has been to Tokyo will share our astonishment at the empty streets of the city, since one of Tokyo’s defining characteristics is its ever present, but orderly, crowds.   So then you realise – you knew this, but you conveniently chose to overlook it – that there is a random quality to events.   Just as they don’t deserve their present difficulties, we neither deserve nor can guarantee our comparative good fortune.

We live our lives as though we would live forever, but this is a delusion.   We are but mortal, and we do not know what tomorrow will bring.    We actually live from breath to breath.     We ought to live each day as though it were our last, leaving nothing undone, all our debts paid in full, for who knows when we may find, like our brothers and sisters in Japan, that disaster and catastrophe have slipped amongst us and are wreaking havoc with our fragile happiness.

I look around me and I think that those very things that bring us most joy – our children, our grandchildren, and the affection of our friends – are where we are most vulnerable.    I feel sad too that anxiety about me must cloud the lives of those who love me.

At times like these I feel that my normal optimism and capacity to remain positive in difficult circumstances may not be a strength, but mere foolishness, like a match flame flickering over  a dark scene of devastation, fleeting, ephemeral, and finally, forlorn.

UPDATE ON ELISABETH AND ROB

Following advice from both their firms, Elisabeth and Rob have taken a few days holiday and gone to Osaka, which is near Kyoto, south of Tokyo on the shinkansen.   They are due to visit their friends in Beijing at the weekend and will hope to arrange to fly from Osaka.   We all hope the situation may by the time of their proposed return to Tokyo, be a bit more stable.   Thanks for all your kind enquiries.

JUSTICE!

JUSTICE!

I was thinking of those people whom we occasionally meet, whose behaviour is breath-takingly awful, yet who seem to have an impenetrable armour of self belief and can justify all manner of sins in themselves – see only virtue in their most selfish actions – and lay the blame on others while letting themselves off scot-free.

You wonder, do these people actually believe their own lies?   What does it cost them in psychic energy to maintain such a delusion?     There must be some chamber in their inner house, where the dreadful truth shines out like diamonds glinting among the cobwebs and dirt, and at the entrance to which they have to maintain a 24 hour armed guard, lest they stumble upon this lethal knowledge by accident.   If they saw themselves as the worthless trash they are, would they just nod into the mirror – they always knew they were a knave – or would they recoil in horror from the repulsive individual who squinted back at them?   Although they cause great hurt to others and damage everything they touch, we can all walk away from them.   They, on the other hand, have to live with themselves forever.

Someone I know once showed me a letter from a former spouse, whose record of behaviour had been far from exemplary.   They had however taken up religion with considerable zeal, and from their pinnacle of newly found virtue, they graciously offered to pray for my friend’s salvation.    I am sorry to record that this generous offer was not at all well received.    ‘Does God answer the prayer of such as these?’ (employing a word I could not use here.)   I said it was never clear whether prayer was answered at all, and certainly rarely in the way the petitioner wished, but if you believed all prayers were heard, then the answer was Yes.   God was not partial and we were all sinners.   Engaging in a vigorous bout of hand washing as if to remove all traces of the contaminating letter, its ungrateful recipient snorted that some of us were more sinners than others.

As I reflected on these matters this week, I thought, while the sinning obviously does matter, some of us know we are sinners, while others believe they are gods, accountable to no-one but themselves.

When Mohamed Bouazizi set himself ablaze in Tunisia, having found no justice he could apply to in this world, and thereby laid his case before a Higher Authority, despots and tyrants on his continent probably did not immediately perceive their danger.   Yet some of them are already gone, their reputations destroyed, their evil actions exposed, whereas this previously unknown fruit seller will be a hero of many republics.   The tragedy is that he had to lose his life in the process.

There is a Roman proverb which goes:   Fiat justitia ruat caelum.    Let justice be done, though the heavens should fall.   Heavens appear to be falling all round about us.

Justice!

P.S.   Elisabeth and Rob are safe and well in Tokyo, although having to climb 27 flights of stairs to their apartment.     Clearly though there are difficulties ahead for Japan and we are anxious about developments in a nuclear plant to the north of Tokyo.

THE BEAUTIFUL MT FUJI

THE BEAUTIFUL MOUNT FUJI

 

It is now over three months since we returned from visiting Elisabeth and Rob in Japan and I think I’m finally coming to the end of my reflections, which like those in a pool of water, ripple across my mind for a long time.

Japan is a culturally different, beautiful country of great contrasts, and anyone who has the opportunity to visit should seize it with both hands.

When we visited Japan in March 1997, we travelled in the company of John’s eldest daughter of his first marriage, Kerri.    As we walked round a garden in Kyoto, we were ‘adopted’ by an old man, a former headmaster, now retired.    He still retained a somewhat didactic style, and turned to me and enquired: “And what do you think of the atmosphere in this garden?”    Er, what? I thought.    Does he mean, green?   Damp?    Then inspiration came.    “It is very tranquil.”    He listened carefully, then nodded in approval.   So, all the way round he asked us questions.    He also obtained for us, by vigorous discussion with officials which we could not follow, access to forbidden areas, special views, VIP sections and so on.    His English was very good, and he also talked with Kerri in Japanese.    Finally, when we took our leave of him, (John presenting him with his business card, two hands, small bow, and inviting him to visit us should he ever come to England) he turned to me and said, “One last question, madam.   What is the most impressive thing you have seen in Japan?”     But I had my answer ready.    “The most impressive thing I have seen in Japan is the beautiful Mount Fuji.”     His face lit up.    “Ah, Fuji-san.”     Then he gave me a small, valedictory nod.    “It is a good answer.”

Fuji, which rises out of a plain in an almost symmetrical cone is a most beautiful, mysterious mountain.    You can go out looking for it all day – it’s huge, and you know it’s right there in front of you – but it can remain utterly absent.    Then, disappointed, you walk away, but you drop your glove and turning round to retrieve it, there’s Fuji in all his majesty, in full and glorious view, as though he had been teasing you on his game of hide and seek but had suddenly relented.    Yet on a clear day, you can see Fuji from Tokyo.   Whenever you do see Fuji you feel blessed and privileged, and experience an uprising of the heart.

The lovely photographs of Japan in my blogs have all been courtesy of John, and above is his photograph of Fuji taken from the  shinkansen, and below by Rob  of a boat on a canal in Kurashiki.

 

It is always a pleasure to visit the land of the rising sun.