From an itch you hardly notice, to an incandescent membrane that you can’t see beyond, is the zone of pain.
There is no limit to pain. Even when you’re in the prime of your health, lying in your soft bed, simply letting your body do what it does, there’s pain. That unpleasant pull at the roots of a clutch of hair on your head, the pressure at the corner of your eyeballs as they swivel in the socket, tenderness in a dozen places where fabric has chafed your skin, the beginnings of a crick in the neck, unbidden spikes and tiny cramps as digestion lurches through your bowels, embers of little cuts and scratches fanned by a spurt of blood flowing under them.
You can’t ignore pain. You can choose not to communicate it outside, but you really can’t ignore it. In your consciousness, pain is an ectoplasm-like entity, whose purpose is to expand and envelop. Pain is how your body draws attention, your complete attention, to itself. A man with a migraine can feel the breeze laving his elbow, or the twitch of every hair on his head. A man with sciatica can feel interesting things, too.
To the uninitiated, sciatica is back ache with attitude. A slipped disc gives you back pain. Vertebrae pressing against the nerves that run down your legs gives you sciatica. The nerves in question are pressed together, squeezed and more or less chewed by two bones, according to the movement in your spine.
Here’s how it gives you your first anatomy lesson: Imagine a little bead of raw electricity. It is born in your spine, and without warning or known trigger, travels varying distances along the lower half of your body at what seems like the speed of sound. A short, sharp, sudden spike, down to the middle of your buttocks, or along your thigh, or all the way to your heel. You can feel the trail of the nerves, you can feel muscles you don’t usually think about.
Pain commands your attention and often, forces your compliance. But when it can’t, when you overcome it and bend it through your will, what a victory that is. It’s like internalising life’s struggle. Your body becomes the stage, and your mind is the actor. It draws on every bit of unpleasantness ever experienced and runs it over again; from nowhere, emotional hurts, heartbreaks, losses blend into your physical pain. It’s like instances of your mental anguish are disembodied spirits waiting for physical expression. When you’re in pain, you’re possessed. You’re acutely aware and completely oblivious at the same time. Inhibitions lose their grip in the onslaught of your repressed reactions. In moments of reprieve, which reveal themselves to no one but you, you choose either to exercise uncharacteristic compassion, or lash out viciously. You think you can get away with anything when you’re in pain. Your every whim is executed and if it is improbable, it is respected. As a man in pain, you can evoke anger, compassion, guilt, awe in whoever you choose. Your body is a throne, you are king. And when pain leaves you, you’re a hero; in spite of your tantrums, in spite of your contrariness, your succumbing to weakness, your surrender to emotion, your penchant for hysteria.
Why the triumph, I wonder. There’s little you can do to prevent pain, nothing you do can stop it leaving you. Clearly, I’m not talking about self inflicted pain. I don’t want to go down that pointless path. What I’m trying to say is that you can’t negotiate pain. It’s an objective entity. It has no attitude. It has a very predictable pattern. If pain were energy, you’d be a wire it passes through. Realistically, you’re a digestive tract which something entered and exited. You don’t boast about living through lighting or rain, why get cocky about living through pain, just another natural phenomenon?
And what if will has nothing to do with pain? What if people are simply built with different thresholds, that some feel pain more acutely than others? What if all this ‘overcoming pain’ is simply the result of a higher capacity for handling pain? “A bee stung me, I didn’t wince.” “Well, you’ve got thick skin, figuratively”. That would really take the juice out of it, wouldn’t it.
I don’t know how to finish this. There really is no end to pain. After we’re through with it once, we’re always expecting it in some form. We mould our relationships around it, we mould ourselves to avoid it. It is a sublime language, pain is. The body speaks it, yes, the mind does too. But really, they only understand the language – in varying degrees. Life itself speaks the language. I wonder what it is trying to tell us, I wonder what life asks us to do.
Perhaps, it is our resistance to that message which makes it all so painful.