Pain is a symptom. Symptoms are the feedback that the body generates when it faces problems with its delicate internal balance (homeostasis). Without symptoms like pain, thirst, nausea and fevers, it would be very difficult for us to maintain a healthy body in the same way that it would be hard to drive a car safely with no dashboard display.
The Logic Of Forgiving Your Pain
‘Pain is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated
with actual or potential tissue damage’.
-The International Association for the Study of Pain
Pain is not a disorder or a disease. And our relationship with pain is virtually as ancient as life itself because pain is a major part of what keeps us safe and alive.
There’s no question that the underlying physical conditions which lead to chronic pain cause untold suffering. That should never ever be diminished or disregarded. But the pain itself is just the body’s way of signalling a real or perceived threat to tissue integrity.
You cannot have a safe relationship with the sun without skin. Without skin, your organs and soft tissues would cook when you sunbathe. You can’t have a safe relationship with the air around you without an immune system. Without an immune system, you would succumb to an invasion of bacteria, viruses and moulds. Similarly, you can’t have a safe relationship with food without a liver. Without a liver, your food would poison you very quickly. The liver, immune system and the skin all perform vital protective functions. Pain is the same.
It’s a movement. We can’t have a safe relationship without pain. Without pain, you would damage yourself every time you left the house. Pain is every bit as protective in nature as the liver, skin and immune system.
Pain is mother nature’s kill switch on the hyper-excessive friskiness of life. Without this, survival for most organisms would be impossible.
Consider the supernatural courage of a hungry lioness. Even with highly developed pain wiring, hunger frequently drives her to act with what appears to be a total absence of caution. Hunger with teeth, claws and a willingness to launch her 200kg frame through midair at 80kmph: at 400kg of muscle and horns. Comparatively, the dangers of test rugby look like lawn bowls.
Lionesses tolerate astronomical levels of risk even with the full knowledge of how much they can get hurt. So how reckless would they be without pain? A life led that recklessly is not sustainable. It’s a pain that provides the vital feedback that keeps risk-taking and carelessness in check. Not only in the big games.
The notion of a life without pain has universal appeal. Pain is not very pleasant. Yet, a life lived without pain is an experience that not a single one of us would want to have.
Occasionally, people are born with a rare genetic mutation called ‘congenital hypoalgesia‘, which means they don’t experience pain. Lucky right? Not in the slightest; it’s a heartbreaking condition. And its struggles offer deep insight into the true nature of pain.
For congenital hypoalgesia sufferers, temperature extremes mean nothing. Terrible skin burns are thus a normal part of daily life. They casually chew large chunks of flesh from their own hands and lips as children. They are highly susceptible to serious skin infections. Muscles don’t develop normally, and their joints disintegrate due to severe arthritis very early in life. They are prone to breaking bones while exercising, only to continue as if nothing happened. Ultimately, most lead severely shortened lives caused by the damage their bodies accrue. It’s an unthinkable way to live.
It’s entirely possible that you and I suffer more while reading about bones breaking; than these poor souls would from actually breaking their own legs. A broken bone for them is as uncomfortable as ripping a piece of tissue paper is for you.
It is pain’s job to help you safely navigate the innumerable harsh realities your environment presents you with. Because too much of almost anything can ultimately be lethal. And pain marks your safe boundaries in flesh-searing bright neon. Without pain, you would have no truly meaningful sense of limitation.
The searing slam of pain in your finger means – too hot!
The fulsome ache after overeating means – too much!
The acidic burn in your chest when you hold your breath means – too long!
The jarring hard pain in your shin bone means – too hard!
The sharp regretful pounding of a hangover means – too toxic!
The discouraging watery malaise of a punch on the nose means – too slow!
The stab of sudden awareness as your ankle rolls means – too far!
Without pain, you wouldn’t even understand what an important activity blinking is.
Pain teaches us the ‘physical meaning’ of the dangers of our environment. Pain may be unpleasant while you are going through it. But it is nonetheless an overwhelming force for good in your world. Without pain, you are not even safe from yourself, let alone the world at large.
Physical pain is the only thing that lends meaning to harm.
Pain is a pulse of pure physical wisdom designed to reveal the limitations of the delicate little pinkish or brownish suit you found yourself in.
And crucially for the record. If you have been suffering with persistent pain: that too is part of that same healthy feedback. The fact that it sticks around doesn’t mean the pain itself has transformed into a disease or a sickness. It just means the signal has found it necessary to keep broadcasting; for its own valid reasons.
Persistent pain is no more complex or mysterious than the hot stove pain. It’s trying to tell us something. The trick to all pain is learning, getting to grips with the deeper cause and meaning and honouring the body’s wishes as opposed to approaching the pain as a problem in and of itself.
While pain’s basic purpose is keeping the body safe, it remains a deeply complex phenomenon that can occur with or without an immediate physical trauma.
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John is one of those rare gentlemen who has continued to play competitive soccer well into his late 50s. He is in really good shape, which you need to be to play football at that age—good shape except for his left leg. His left leg is not in good condition at all. In fact, once you get to know his left leg a bit better, it becomes apparent that it’s miraculous that he’s able to run at all, Let alone the type of running required to play competitive soccer against younger men.