Pleasure and pain are as intriguing as they are dangerous. They are with us from the beginning and experienced daily, yet I don’t think many of us understand them very well. Most basically they are tools, very primitive ones. If you feel pain, then that is often a good sign that you should try to stop what you’re doing. We can’t necessarily say the same thing reversed about pleasure. Pleasure is a less discriminating tool than pain. And that is not to say that there aren’t times when pain fails to accurately suggest cessation.
So pleasure typically reinforces behavior and pain discourages it. As a species we still exist in large part because we can’t help ourselves when it comes to sex and stuffing our faces with available sugars, fats, and salts—much to the joy of STIs and McDonald’s.
For the rest of this essay, I want to focus on pain. There are, of course, a variety of pains. They vary in intensity, duration, and quality, e.g., ache, stab, throb, tingle, etc. And, importantly, they vary as to the location and the importance of that location for one’s sense of self and world. Pain that occurs in the stomach, chest, and head can feel all encompassing, like it’s a part of who you are and how the world is. Pains in the extremities can, of course, be great, but they don’t tend to constitute you in the way the aforementioned pains can. I say this from my experience with periods of chronic chest pain (costochondritis), stomach pain (gastritis), and sporadic migraines (aura, nausea/vomiting, head pain). But perhaps others’ experiences are different.
I have also had the pleasure of experiencing, as I get older, lesser but still frustrating pains, e.g., aching shoulder tendons, hip pain, and foot pain. These pains aren’t severe, but they tend to be sporadically chronic; they come back easily after making me think they’ve gone away.
All of these pains make me think of Nietzsche and Jennie Wrisley. Both experienced intense, chronic pain of varying sorts. One of Nietzsche’s concerns was to argue that pain is not an objection to life. I take this to mean most centrally that pain need not devalue life, and, more, that it need not preclude living well. Concomitant with this idea is that of appreciating the value of pain and the disvalue of always reacting to pain (and suffering, more generally) by thinking you should prevent it and end it as soon as possible for yourself or others. Pain can often be of value. One way of putting this last point is as Nietzsche did, though it is often misunderstood: What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.
I think Nietzsche is right about pain and suffering. However, it is important to realize that he is not making universal claims. That is, you can agree that pain is not ipso facto an objection to life and still affirm that there are situations in which it is. I think that this is the case with Jennie and her suicide.
I want to take stock of the ground covered so far. Pleasure and pain are useful but imperfect tools, liable to lead us astray. There are pains that pervade us and those that don’t. Even though pain may not be, in general, an objection to life, some of us are still forced to ask: at what point are my pervading pains too much? I cannot begin to answer that, except to say that it must be a very personal decision. Further, there are the pervading and non-pervading, semi-chronic to chronic, pains that come from getting older, sickness, and injury, but that don’t really call into question life, but rather its quality. The point I want to make now is about them.
These latter pains can frustrate greatly. This is especially the case as one experiences them improving one day and worsening days later for some unknown reason. You want the pain to go away because it’s pain and because it’s interfering with your sleep, your reading, or keeping you from going hiking or biking, etc. For me, this situation forces the question: how can I stop seeing this pain as a kind of objection to living well, one that justifies self-pity, one that justifies making the pain a central focus of my attention such that I don’t engage fully with life? Another way to phrase this question would perhaps be: How can I live well while in pain?
For the pervading pains, this is, I think, a much more difficult question to answer. But for the non-pervading ones I have found the following helpful.
1) From Buddhism we can take the idea that pain and suffering are not equivalent. Pain turns to suffering when we crave a state of non-pain. Let go of thoughts of and intense desire for non-pain and you will suffer less. This does not, of course, mean don’t do what you can to heal. But it does call for a certain kind of patience and acceptance.
2) Recognize/familiarize yourself with different perspectives on pain. Just being aware of the idea that pain need not be an objection to life can be liberating. We naturally seek to end pain and get pleasure. Realizing there are other ways of seeing the situation can help.
3) Judiciously ignore pain’s telling you not to do something. Don’t let the pain control you just as you know you shouldn’t let pleasure control you.
4) Familiarize yourself with figures who have been productive and led full lives while in pain. Part of my reason for thinking about these issues comes from my own pains and from reading a recent article in Outside magazine about the author Jim Harrison. I’m likely wont to romanticize, but it seems from what I’ve read of Nietzsche and Harrison, for example, and what I saw from Jennie, that one can live exuberantly while in pain.
5) Realize that more people experience chronic pain than you realize. The point is not that misery loves company but that it is easier to fall into self-pity when you mistakenly think that you are one of the few damned by God to be in pain while everyone else is pain free loving life.
These have proved helpful for me. But pain is a very personal thing. So I do not mean to suggest that what has characterized my experiences of pain is universal. However, since life and aging essentially entail pain and discomfort, the better we are at understanding pain and how to live with it, the better our well-being, regardless of the efficacy or truth of 1-5. As these are “thoughts” I’ve come to from reflecting on my experiences, I welcome the opportunity to refine them. So please let me know what you think.