What is the meaning of pain ?

4 juin 2021 par jerome lecoq



We all suffer periodically, from low to high intensity pain, physically or mentally. At its core, pain is a purely physical reaction of our body to a malfunction affecting it, like an alarm signal which tells us that something goes awry with our body. Pain has an overly broad intensity spectrum from slight discomfort to unbearable pain which makes us faint. One thing is for sure: this is our pain, not anybody else's. I have an immediate certitude that the pain is mine, that it belongs to me and there is conversely an impossibility of conveying to the others what our pain feels like. We are stuck with our pain; we are condemned to carry it like a burden with only minor chance of sharing it. When pain is at its peak, I become my pain. I am my tooth ache, I become my aching tooth, nothing else exists in the world except my tooth aching.

Resistance against the will

Thus, is pain a particularly useful, and even necessary sign to designate to the doctor what is the problem with my body: it will guide him for establishing his diagnosis, an essential step towards curing the patient, although this is not enough since one pain can be the symptom of many different diseases.

When pain is manageable, when it is not overwhelming (but the position of the cursor is up to each of us' sensitivity) it makes me feel more alive than when I am in a state of equanimity, of not feeling my body. Every sportsman knows that when pain starts is the time when effort pays off, when a threshold is slightly being overtaken, when the body is pushed to the limits. The search for performance is very tightly connected to pain: the one who is able to suffer the longest without dismantling his technique will be the winner most likely. In competitive sports, pain and pleasure are intertwined because at one stage the sportsman will have to have a "pain management system" which makes him aware that to produce sustainable results, he will have to alternate between pain and pleasure.

More generally speaking, pain is the product of the resistance of my body against my "hyperorganic" will, as French philosopher Maine de Biran used to coin it. When I am willingly suffering through an effort, I experience the power of my will against the natural inertia of my body, which only wants to be left alone, to be at ease and to forget about itself. Of course, it is a razor-thin blade to walk on since on the other side the injury threatens, and you do not want to injure your body. Nor do you search pain for pain otherwise you would be qualified as a masochist, an alienating mental pathology.

A great deal of people regularly experience this kind of "pain in the effort" as a proof that they are fully living, that they have some kind of control over their life when things in other domains of their life might especially be out of their control. Because of course, as soon as you stop the effort, the pain goes away ; then comes the pleasure, of relief, of rest, of relaxation and wellbeing. There is thus a tendency to directly go to the latter without experiencing the former and that is possible but then you lose the benefit of all work: you do not make any progress in your discipline.

Finitude of the being

When unwanted, when I am passively experiencing pain, it reminds me of my vulnerability, of the fragility, the mortality of my body and the unbreakable limit of my finitude. Pain can be the consequence of an injury or of a disease. It also points to the unimaginable complexity of the human body and of the immune system against daily microbiotic aggressions from the environment. The mind, when daydreaming or even abstractly thinking, tends to forget about its incarnation and what it owes to the body. Spinoza used to say that "one does not know what the body can" which suggest that the body is more inventive and powerful than the mind. With pain the mind is reminded that it cannot for exceptionally long free itself from the gravity of the body. Plato had it as a regulatory ideal that the training of the body would lead the mind to elevate itself and contemplate pure ideas face-to-face. He would advise nonetheless to take good care of, to train one own's body so that it would not impose itself as a tough reminder to the mind under the form of, for example, a distractive pain.

Before Plato, Diogenes used to embrace snowy sculptures in winter and roll himself on hot sand in the summer to toughen himself, not to be bothered or disturbed by the roughness of nature. Pain is therefore something to be accustomed to, to be trained against by enduring it or even embracing it without complaining. The ancient Greeks acknowledged that the body was a condition of the mind, so they took care of their body as a hygienic step towards peace of mind. Only a well-groomed body would leave the mind alone to think freely.

Unfortunately, some of us are burdened with periodical very intense episodes of chronicle pains. In those episodes the mind is incapable of thinking to something else than its pain since the subject entirely becomes its pain. It is famous that Nietzsche suffered from terrible ophthalmic migraines which sucked energy out of him. It gave him a feeling of urge to write intensively whenever his disease would leave him alone, it gave him the feeling of being at war against pain and being a survivor. Ultimately, when pain becomes unbearable always comes the idea of suicide: one has always the possibility of expressing one's freedom by taking one's own life when overwhelmed by pain, making therefore suicide as a reassuring idea.

But when in the middle of intense physical pain, no thinking is possible, all mental energies are focused on trying to escape pain, which in fact may redouble the pain because powerlessness or the feeling of injustice adds to the pain itself.

No meaning can be found in extreme pain because giving meaning means to at least be able to think, which pain makes impossible.

Meaningful pain

But for some philosophers, pain, even extreme, is also a source of inspiration. Montaigne thought that being accustomed to one's pain helped to know one's body better and to purge it from unhealthy elements. Accepting and even welcoming pain was also a way of keeping incompetent (in the 16th century) doctors at the door: often the cure they imposed created worse evils than the actual disease it was supposed to cure.

For Nietzsche, pain enabled the subject to transform its beliefs, its values, by creating such a tension that the subject would no longer think the same way. He believed extreme suffering provoked a reset of all deeply ingrained beliefs and would create a renewed as more lucid, more conscious, more attentive, more creative, more over-human Subject.

At last, suffering also makes sense for the Christians in general since it allows the believer to be in communion with Christ. Christ walked the calvary bearing the Cross to carry the suffering of all humans and expurgate their sins. Suffering is therefore seen as a trial to prove one's faith and an opportunity to be closer to Jesus by sharing the pain experience, even if the suffering itself might be fundamentally unfair or undeserved.

So we realize that there are various ways of making sense out of pain and giving sense to things is the way humans generally use to think, therefore to take distance from their material being. And taking distance from pain means being less affected by it therefore suffering less. It prevents from doubling the physical pain by mental pain like when we feel powerless and angry because we think pain is unfair. Suffering does not mean you have to see yourself as a victim, even if you objectively are a victim. We have a choice of the meaning we give to our pain: taking the victim side as a necessity would be bad faith, in the sense that it would mean that we refuse to acknowledge the freedom we have of judging ourselves, the fundamental freedom which lies at the root of every judgment, be it on ourselves. It is fine to consider yourself as a victim if you account for your decision of judging yourself so.

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