I am sometimes amazed at the pain in my right shoulder. And arm. It used to be content to reside in my shoulder. Now it’s occupied my entire right arm. I give it high marks for protraction. It's so persistent. It’s been there so long it has formed a personality. Think of the grouchiest person you know. The way they look in the morning. The way they look when you talk to them. When you ask a simple question. Did they sneer? Look askance, as if to say, my God, what an idiot! You know the type. Patrician. Intolerant. Jealous. Constantly seeking attention. Insisting on their importance. Their gravity. Their greatness. Their nobleness and rank.
That’s my pain. I should give it a name, David or Mark or Bruce. Or how about Arthur, for Arthritis. Or Harald Wartooth, the legendary king of 8th century Denmark who was a fierce, indefatigable warrior. His memory could radiate in my arm like the thunder of the waves crashing against the cliffs of Skara Brae.
Why do I suppose the pain has a masculine gender? It would be hard to think of this pain as an Olivia or Emily, but there’s no reason not to believe this pain is female. It’s a mistake to believe that women are inherently sympathetic whereas men are not. It’s been my experience that neither sex is more compassionate than the other and could not be identified with a merciless, arthritic pain. What characterizes masculinity? What characterizes femininity? Let’s not get into that. It will only lead to more pain.
This is a sharp, pinching pain. I feel it at night simmering in my arm like charcoals in a hibachi. Throbbing, stabbing, ceaselessly agitating. If it were a book, it would be a long book. It would be War and Peace. It would be Ulysses. It would be Les Miserables.
If it was a trip, it would never reach its destination. It wouldn’t even have a destination.
If it were a planet, it would weigh more than Jupiter. It would have gravity and attract objects. Our furniture would go into orbit around my arm. My arm and its planetary pain.
Am I exaggerating? No, I'm not. I do not speak for myself. I speak for the pain. I lend my mouth to the pain. Here is what the pain says: you have arthritis. You're getting old. I am the sign of age, and wear and tear, and inflammation, and joints losing fluidity and cartilage, of bone grinding on bone. That’s who I am. I’m the voice of deterioration. I’m the voice of wreckage. I’m the one in the choir gurgling glockenspiels of dissonant steel.
This is the song of the pain. This is what the pain sings in my arm at night. These are the shrill high notes of the pain when I lift my right arm to hang a shirt or a coat in the hallway closet.
I think about going to the doctor. I think about surrender. I think about giving myself up to a merciless and extortionate healthcare system. Astronomical, incomprehensible bills. Bill following bill following bill, ad nauseum. I think about MRIs and arthroscopy and synovial fluid. Technology in the service of the healing arts. Expensive technology. Wonderful technology, ingenious technology, but very, very costly technology.
I think about learning to live with the pain. Making friends with it. Learning from it. What is there to learn from a pain besides its denotative function as a warning of disease or inflammation? Can I learn the ways of the Stoic? Can I learn how to interpret unpleasantness in a different light, from a different aspect?
Is there a philosophy of pain?
Most definitely. There is indeed a philosophy of pain. Many philosophies of pain. Ancient Egyptians believed pain other than that caused by wounds was the result of religious influences or spirits of the dead. I’m not sure you can call that a philosophy, it’s clearly more in the nature of superstitious belief than an inquiry into a phenomenon that does not yield its treasures easily to logic or reason but must be coaxed into expression with tortuous inquiry. Examination. Investigation. Empirical study. Research. Sleepless, distraught, time-consuming experimentation. This is the equipment you’ll need to extract a truth from an enigma, a serum for a disease, a balm for the worries of the mind.
Plato believed pain could restore order to the soul. He viewed pain as in conjunction with pleasure. An unbridled quest for pleasure leads inevitably to pain. It’s all about balance. If our being is in harmony with nature then we will be rewarded with pleasure. He puts a moral spin on it. But the morality of it eludes me. I don’t see arthritis as the result of pleasure-seeking. I don’t see it in relation to anything, except a ball-and-socket joint worn into a state of constant friction due to nothing other than long use over a long period of time. Yes, it indicates a disharmony, a disintegration from a natural state, but it’s a disharmony born of endurance, enduring longer than what nature intended, perhaps. Is that what Plato means? I don’t know. I should investigate further. I find it frustrating that he doesn’t focus on pain in and of itself but conjoins it to pleasure, or that he avoids treating it as a quale, as a mental entity responding to a physiological or phenomenal condition. He makes no appeal to a mental intermediary between the object of pain (pain as a simple somatic response) and the subjectivity of pain, the interior theatre of our private dramas.
Aristotle viewed pain as a matter of the soul. Pain was primarily emotion and that it could be overcome through logic. I would have to assume that Aristotle managed to go through life without experiencing much pain.
Ibn Sina, a famous medieval Muslim philosopher and physician who is also known by his Latin name Avicenna, wrote numerous insightful treatises on the practice of medicine, most notably The Canon of Medicine. He classified pain into 15 types (itching, pricking, compressing, stretching, breaking, penetrating etc.), but ascribed several different causes, one of them being the temperamental change produced by “an incongruous stimulus.” It was an interruption, a rupture in the general harmony that generates pain. He also wrote extensively about brain anatomy and its role as a center for pain sensation.
Descartes defined pain as “fast moving particles of fire” that pass along nerve filamentation until they reach the brain. I hurt, therefore I am.
Nietzsche believed pain was the only way to achieve self-growth and meaning. It was the source of great art. I’m reminded of some lyrics in Bob Dylan’s song, “Not Dark Yet”: “My sense of humanity is going down the drain / behind every beautiful thing, there’s been some kind of pain.”
Pain is a universally felt sensation, but our relationship to it is personal. Life without pain would be as empty as life without pleasure. Pleasure can sometimes be derived from pain, and pain is quite often the result of over-indulging in something pleasurable. Pain is erratic, chronic, and weird. It can appear as suddenly and mysteriously as it will sometimes disappear.
My relationship with the arthritic pain in my right shoulder is anchored in reflection. How can it not be? It’s in me. I can’t run away from it. I can’t return it to the manufacturer. I could lull it with pain-killers, oxycontin or Vicodin, but that leads nowhere good. I can only do one thing (outside of surrendering to the crime syndicate known as the U.S. healthcare system), and that is to make friends with it. Give it a little respect. Enjoy some conversations with it. Give it a name. Yolanda Squatpump. Shit Fun Chew. Doo-Doo Zopitty Bop Bop.