If I had one gift to give to people with leprosy, it would be the gift of pain.
– Paul Brand, 1946.
I always thought I understood leprosy. I thought it was that famous disease were bits of your body rot and fall off.
While it’s kinda true that that is one of the symptoms, what’s really going on is that a bacteria gets into your body, and in some cases severs the nerve connections between your senses and you brain.
You stop feeling things.
What happens then is that over time, you do so much damage to yourself because you can’t feel pain – banging toes against rocks, grabbing hot things – you can give yourself such a battering that you can end up with severe deformities. In some cases, parts of your body rot and fall away.
That was the doctor Paul Brand’s realisation. Physical deformities weren’t an intrinsic part of the disease – they were just an incidental consequence. And all because his patients couldn’t feel pain.
We go to great lengths to avoid pain. I used to know a guy who’d put his slippers in the microwave first thing on cold winter’s mornings.
His microwave was in the bedroom.
And in the Panadol-age, pain is public enemy number one – a rouge super-villian roaming the body until the right medicines come to kill him off.
So it’s funny to hear someone (with good intentions) wishing pain on others.
But the truth of it is we feel pain for a reason. In fact, alongside opposable thumbs, pain is one of the key things that’s gotten our species where it is.
Pain keeps us alive.
If you break it down, I think pain has two key functions.
The first is a messenger function. Pain is an alert that something’s not right. Something’s out of whack. And pain points us in the direction of what needs fixing.
And the messenger pain has been given the right to over-ride all other thoughts and motivations if it needs to – like a young boy bursting into the board room with an important telegram in his hand. It’s impossible to plan dinner with your hand on a hot stove.
But I think pain also has an energiser function. That is, there’s a bust of adrenalin and energy that comes with pain. It gets the body ready for action. It’s fires up the fight or flight machinery.
It opens up the stores of energy we might need to fix whatever’s wrong with us.
In this sense, pain gives us direction and it gives us drive.
They’re both pretty useful things to have, right?
So why have we got this avoid-pain-at-all-costs mentality? We don’t admit that there’s any useful role for pain to play at all.
And so from an early age we learn strategies that protect us from pain. We don’t go into the woods. We put our slippers in the microwave.
We keep our emotional worlds tightly guarded.
And we learn to fear pain itself. It never extends as far as the sources of pain. We’re not afraid of the sources of pain. We’re afraid of pain itself.
And our senses become a hallway of shut doors.
We all go through life wanting to protect ourselves. That’s a beautiful and loving thing to do. It’d be weird if we didn’t.
But that protective urge can go too far – and we become like an over-protective mother, molly-coddling ourselves.
And this disconnects us from an important source of direction and drive.
Say something in your life isn’t working. You job makes you feel like a disempowered monkey. Or one of your key relationships is rocky.
The pain associated with that reality is a wake-up call that something needs to change. It’s a flashing red light over that aspect of your life, and it’s the energy you need to transform your situation.
But if we’re afraid of pain, and we go to great lengths to avoid ever feeling pain, then we’ll never get that far.
At the first signs of uneasiness, we’ll rush to deal with pain the symptom. We’ll distract ourselves from the situation. We’ll escape into work or bird-watching. We’ll numb ourselves with alcohol or other sedatives …like TV.
Whatever it takes to avoid feeling pain.
And we’re enabled by a society that tells us everything should be awesome all the time, and if it’s not, then there’s probably a pill for that. If you’ve got migraines, is it stress, is it poor posture, is it dehydration? Doesn’t matter. Take a pill and you won’t even have to deal with the symptoms, let alone the root cause.
(There’s a lot of money in treating symptoms. Much more than in cures.)
And this can play out at a deeper ‘soul’ level too. If you’re living a life that makes you miserable, your body will let you know about it one way or another. If you’re misaligned with the life you’re really called to live, you’ll never be settled.
Pain is a gift. It’s the road map to what needs changing in your life. And it’s the motivation and drive to actually do something about it.
But it can only play that role if we allow it to. And for that to happen, we need to allow pain. We need to stop resisting it. In fact we need to turn towards it with a welcoming curiosity – give it the time and space it needs to teach us what it’s here to teach us.
I guess we can also probably slot this blog into Jon’s Impractical New Age Advice for Hippies. This isn’t an easy path. Again, it’s about turning your back on the allure of the quick fix, and setting out on the road of hard slogs.
It’ll never sell.
But I’m a big believer that if we stop running from pain, if we just stop running from everything, then we’ll find the keys to transforming our lives are already in our hands.
And living life on your own terms is just so much more exciting.