Pain, Suffering, and Companionship
I was recently conducting a workshop in Singapore, and an earnest student asked, “You talked a lot about the healing power of companionship, but how exactly does that help when it comes to pain and suffering?” I’ve accepted the “truth” that companionship is a powerful antidote for existence pain and suffering, but it’s been a while since I’ve really pondered and had to explain why. The question from this “beginner’s mind” challenged me to offer her an answer that will quell her genuine desire to learn.
My answer begins with a deeper look into the nature of pain. In his book, Pain, The Gift Nobody Wants, Dr. Paul Brand explores the purpose and value of physical pain (Brand’s work in this blog is referenced by Rollo May in his book Freedom and Will). Brand teaches that the very unpleasantness of pain, the part that we hate, is what makes it so effective in protecting us and warning us of danger and injury. The unpleasant quality of pain forces the entire human organism to attend to the problem. Although the body has automatic reflexive movements that form an outer layer of protection and moves us quickly away from the pain, it is the feeling of unpleasantness that galvanizes and compels the entire organism to attend and act. It also sears the experience into the memory and serves to protect us in the future. Thus, Brand believes that we can even develop gratitude in the face of pain. We may not be grateful for the experience of pain, but we can be grateful for the system of pain perceptions.
“That which hurts, also instructs.”—Benjamin Franklin
“For we are like olives: only when we are crushed do we yield what is best in us.”—The Talmud (in Hrabal, 1976 p. 14)
Rollo May goes on to teach us that we convert pain into suffering in the mind. Similarly, Harold Kushner, in the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, gives the following example:
Scientists have found ways of measuring the intensity of the pain we feel. They can measure the fact that a migraine headache hurts more than a skinned knee. And they have determined that two of the most painful things human being can experience are giving birth and passing a kidney stone. From a purely physical point of view, these two events both hurt equally, and hardly anything hurts more. But from a human point of view, the two are different. The pain of passing a kidney stone is simply pointless suffering, the result of a natural malfunction somewhere in our body. But the pain of giving birth is creative pain. It is pain that has meaning, pain that gives life, that lead to something. That is why the person who passes a kidney stone will usually say “I’d give anything not to have to go through that again,” but the woman who has given birth to a child, like the runner or mountain climber who has driven his body to reach a goal, can transcend her pain and contemplate repeating the experience (p. 72).
Furthermore, Daniel Gottlieb, in his book The Wisdom of Sam, teaches that:
There is a big difference between pain and suffering. Pain is pain and doesn’t necessarily need to be fixed. Ninety-nine percent of the time, pain heals on its own; and that more often than not, trying to fix pain actually makes it worse. That’s because we wrap our minds around the pain and try to fix it, all we are really doing is holding on to it. We talk about the experience, who caused it, the injustice, our indignation. During the popular-psychology movement of the 1970s, many of us were told we should “get rid of it” by venting or blowing off steam. That usually doesn’t work. In fact, venting actually makes the pain worse because the more we talk about it and think about it, the longer the pain stays with us. And that is when pain turns into suffering. (p. 8)
We need to make a distinction between acute pain and chronic pain. With acute pain, what we need to do is to look an immediate remedy, a “pain killer.” However, our mindset still impacts how we perceive the pain.
What clients need is trust that they have the resilience, in themselves, to meet the unknown, to experience it, and to survive. They need to learn the lessons that only nature—not his parents—can teach him. What they needed from their parents was what all children needed from their parents: the faith that they can endure adversity. When a child does not have a parents’ faith, they experience the parents’ anxiety. And in time, the child comes to experience him/herself as fragile in the face of a difficult world. As a result, the child never gets a chance to “toughen up.”
Resilience cannot be taught. It is to be nurtured by faith. It’s something that clients already have inside. “I don’t’ know about you, but all the wisdom I’ve acquired has come from adversity, pain, suffering, loss, and some really stupid decisions. All of these things have caused me great suffering. I have learned that every time I suffer, I recover. And over time, that knowledge has turned to faith. Now I have faith that when I face adversity, somehow I’ll be okay. It might not be the outcome I would prefer, but I have faith that I will be okay with what is.”
Thus, to lessen the suffering of pain, May teaches that we need to make a crucial distinction between the pain of pain, and the pain we create by our thoughts about the pain. Fear, anger, guilt, loneliness, and helplessness are all mental and emotional responses that can intensify pain. So, in developing an approach to deal with pain, we can of course work at the lower levels of pain perception, using the tools of modern medicine such as medication and other procedures, but we can also work at the higher levels by modifying our outlook and attitude. And companionship is the “mechanism” through which we help our clients to modify their outlook and attitudes.
Furthermore, fear and physical pain are synergistic. Severe pain produces the fear of pain, and that fear—any fear, but particularly the terror of severe physical suffering—also actually increases the intensity of pain. While companionship cannot take away the physical pain, it can help to alleviate the fear or even terror of that pain. Modern analgesics can help with the lower levels of pain perception, but it is companionship that that helps us with the higher levels of “pain management.” It is companionship that gives validity to the experience that pain does not have to equal suffering. It is companionship that helps to share and lessen the burden of our clients’ pain—thus giving credence to the aphorism that “shared joy is twice the joy while shared grief is half the grief.”
Brand makes one additional fascinating and critical observation. He describes many reports of leprosy patients claiming, “Of course, I can see my hands and my feet, but somehow they don’t feel like part of me. It feels as if they are just tools.” Thus, pain not only warns us and protects us, but it unifies us. Without pain sensation in our hands or feet, those parts no longer seem to belong to our body.
In the same way that physical pain unifies our sense of having a body, we can conceive of the general experience of suffering as a unifying force that connects us with others. Perhaps that is the ultimate meaning behind our suffering. It is our suffering that is the most basic element that we share with others, the factor that unifies us with all living creatures.
So it is our suffering that unites us. Conversely, it is in unity or companionship that our pain need not be translated into suffering, and it is in companionship where our suffering can more easily find its meaning.
-- Mark Yang