Back in the day, on active duty in the United States Marine Corps, we had this saying – particularly when serving in a combat zone: “Pain is good.” If I asked one of my men why it was good, he would invariably reply: “Sir, because it means you’re still alive.” Outsiders might have thought that a joke. It wasn’t. The alternative to not feeling inflicted pain is to not feel anything.
Memories of those grunt-filled days are occasioned by presently dealing with the pain accompanying recovery from major shoulder surgery. You might guess that it’s not fun, and half of my brain wants to take me immediately two or three weeks down the line when I can ashcan the meds. But the other half encourages me to savor the moment.
To be sure, I am not glorifying pain nor advocating a desire for it. And my reflections are not on the unbearable types from which there is no alleviation or escape. My pondering is on the various hurts life invariably visits upon us . . . unpleasant – perhaps in the extreme – but from which we can not only survive but grow. The following are offered as pain situations which can be viewed from a positive perspective.
- Congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis, CIPA, is an inherited disorder of the nervous system which prevents the sensation of pain. This is not a good thing. A person with CIPA might have a serious scratch on the cornea and not feel a thing . . . or lay one’s hand on a hot iron and think nothing’s wrong. Pain is for a reason. It tells us there is some injury or physiological issue that needs attending. For instance, pain is what told me I needed shoulder reconstruction. People with leprosy suffer the loss of repeatedly injured digits or limbs because of no pain. Without pain revealing such problems, we go to pot quickly.
- Positive value can even be applied to types of mental pain . . . most specifically that associated with relationships such as frustration, anger, sadness, fear for another, or grief. Most of these emotions we have, not with strangers, but with people with whom we have valued relationships. We have these feelings because we have these relationships. The opposite is loneliness. Some of my deepest pain resulted when our daughter fell to her death mountain climbing, and measures of that pain will remain with me my whole life. It’s like having a brick in my pocket 24/7. But it’s a good brick, and when I caress it I always give thanks for the thirty-eight years she blessed our lives. It’s positive pain.
- Experienced pain helps us to empathize and minister to others suffering greatly. All things are relative – there is always someone suffering greater pain than I ever have – but working through past pain prepares one for compassionate caring for others in present agony.
- Stating Friedrich Nietzsche’s words – that which does not kill us, makes us stronger – a thousand times lessens not its truthfulness. Most people have experienced this phenomenon explicitly. During pain we learn things about ourselves, one of the foremost being that we can survive and come out stronger on the other side. My post-op shoulder pain is rather piddly on the hurt scale, but it’s bringing to the fore one more time the fact that I can do this . . . I can take it . . . I’ll be better for it.
Yes, pain is good. Not intrinsically, but because of how it protects us and how, when dealt with properly, it enhances how we approach life. I wouldn’t wish shoulder surgery on anyone, but for me it continues to be a learning, growing experience.