Pain and Mortality: a Meditation on What it Means to Possess a Body

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.” – James Baldwin

“Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” – C.S. Lewis

I’ve been dealing with dull and acute pain for over a week. Primarily back pain, from a pinched nerve I suspect, but it migrates to my head and down my arms too. I have had it before and it is usually from unwisely lifting something heavy and with poor posture. Now I am not writing any of this to illicit sympathy, but more as a meditation for myself on the phenomenon.

Pain is something our society does not deal with well. It is to be medicated, numbed out of existence, or “pushed through.” Pain is to be seen as a means to gaining strength or some other kind of reward. Many of us know the cliched catch phrases: “no pain, no gain” or “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” No time is to be spent contemplating it except as a stepping stone to power or in its eradication.

Pain’s association with pleasure, of which there is a myriad of evidence to support, is also routinely denied, made a joke of, or looked at with disdain. It is seen as merely a kink or a fetish. A so-called “deviant behavior,” and not a fundamental and wondrous contradiction of the human experience itself. And to talk about pain inevitably invites tons of unsolicited advice as to how to deal with it and eliminate it. It is a language designed to obscure one of the most basic and universal conditions that define possessing a corporeal body.

To be clear, I am not saying anyone should ever have to endure pain. I am also not suggesting one ignore it. After all, pain is the body’s best way of alerting us to something wrong, misaligned or disordered in its systemic processes and function. Psychic and spiritual pain are messengers too, and are all too often ignored, suppressed or explained away in our cultures’ penchant for intellectualized detachment. But pain, as well as ecstasy, are two of the most powerful ways to a deeper understanding of what it means to be human. To have a body and a mind. And to know on some visceral, as well as transcendent level, that that body, and even that mind, will fail us. And, at some point, it will cease to function and eventually break down.

There is a renewed push today to pursue immortality, not in a spiritual sense, but in a desperation to stave off aging forever. Mass media, as well as the fitness and fashion industries, have long honed their skills of playing on our existential anxieties, albeit in the most base of ways. But science, in the thrall of profit, is on board too. One quick internet search and you will find recent articles saying scientists are closer than ever in achieving it thanks to genetic research and other related fields. Hubris aside, this obsession is really nothing new.

Consider the ancient Egyptians. Immortality was associated with more than the concept of a spirit. It was entwined with the body itself. And yet for all their elaborate rituals their bodies merely became empty shells, bathed and well preserved in exotic oils and herbs, but forever devoid of the spirit that once animated them. Now they festoon great museum halls like garishly bedecked, slowly putrefying ghouls. And so when I look at this obsession with staying alive and young, I am compelled to grapple with the obsession humans have with this fragile fleshy, watery, boney vehicle that temporarily houses our spirit.

When I worked with terminally ill people in hospice I encountered human pain and suffering every day. We understood that death could not be medically prevented and that the only compassionate course of action was for palliative care. The mantra, one which I wholeheartedly support, is that no one should have to die alone or in pain. I encountered many who wanted to be sedated or medicated, but there were others who decided to endure as much of the pain that they could so that they could be present until the very last breath.

Now I want to be clear that I think of neither way as being superior, and I would likely choose pain killers over facing death without them. But it caused me to consider that if we ignore the lessons that pain gives us we may risk shortchanging a keen insight into what it means to be alive in the first place. Death is widely seen in many religious and philosophical traditions as a portal to something else and a release from earthly pain, and I sense this is true, although I don’t possess the language to describe it. But do we really want to be released from pains’ grip without contemplating its meaning?

To be sure, I don’t know the answer to that last question. I know there are fates worse than death, and I want nothing of this to sound trite. After all, I don’t want anyone to suffer from unnecessary pain, and I want to be out of my own pain. I am taking the necessary analgesics, anodynes and therapeutic measures to help with this process. It is still there even as I type this essay, waxing and waning. Perhaps it is a warning sign of something more grave, and I don’t intend to ignore it if it is. But I will have to wait to find out given the state of the pandemic.

In the meantime I must sit uncomfortably with my pain, like an unbidden companion who selfishly demands all of my attention. I must also face the fact that this is only the beginning of my body betraying my wishes more frequently as it sees fit. But maybe I will experience a deeper sense of connection to all those who suffer or have suffered, both human and non. And maybe, if I am lucky, I will have gained some humility and grace from the unwanted conversation it has compelled me to have with myself and my mortality.

Kenn Orphan May 2021

“𝐼 𝑑𝑟𝑎𝑛𝑘 𝑡𝑜 𝑑𝑟𝑜𝑤𝑛 𝑚𝑦 𝑠𝑜𝑟𝑟𝑜𝑤𝑠, 𝑏𝑢𝑡 𝑡ℎ𝑒 𝑑𝑎𝑚𝑛𝑒𝑑 𝑡ℎ𝑖𝑛𝑔𝑠 𝑙𝑒𝑎𝑟𝑛𝑒𝑑 ℎ𝑜𝑤 𝑡𝑜 𝑠𝑤𝑖𝑚.” – 𝐹𝑟𝑖𝑑𝑎 𝐾𝑎ℎ𝑙𝑜

*Title art piece is “Sin Esperanza” by Frida Kahlo, 1945

As an independent writer and artist Kenn Orphan depends on donations and commissions. If you would like to support his work and this blog you can do so via PayPal. Simply click here:  DONATE

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1 thought on “Pain and Mortality: a Meditation on What it Means to Possess a Body

  1. Mankh

    Kenn, fwiw i’ve dealt with pinched nerve several times near the sacrum and holistically it got me to explore what is “sacred” as connected with that area. And a phrase i came up with, “pain is a teacher that wants you to graduate its class.” Feel well soon!

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