Everyone feels lots of pain. This is as close to objective fact as one can get with pain discourse. Low level, high level, stubbed toe, my grandma died, who am I, and why did I do that? Worse still, why didn't I do that? She loves me, she loves me not pain and I stacked it on a run and my palms sting. I don't know how or why but my heart is fizzing and feels like it's about to dissolve into someone else. I can't stand how I give away my essential organs like I don't need them. That pain.
Pain becomes such a large part of our lives. In its presence, absence, and degrees of intensity. How we can variously interpret, learn from, hide and defer it.
So, here I am, adding to the time you spend ruminating on pain today. Go figure.
But basically, when you are in a relationship and you are in it for the long haul, bearing another person's pain isn't a burden. It's a purpose. An honour, even. To help them when they are most vulnerable and to, in some small way, ease their pain. But first, let's go on a deep dive into the nature of pain and triggers themselves. Yes, I'm feeling emotionally masochistic. What of it?
Conceptualising pain: how we think about pain.
Pain is a series of 'oh, that hurt' moments and they aren't resolved by pretending that it didn't happen. My most recent 'oh' moment came at the dinner table with my family. My mum forgot that I was gay in the anecdote that she was regaling us with. I shared a glance with my sister across the table and wondered if my Dad noticed the slip. No one corrected her, and I wondered who we protected in so doing. Nothing world ending, but a specific type of hollow regret that got me thinking and, unfortunately for you guys, writing. This is the sort of thing that can be shared in relationships. Not necessarily lessened in its painful impact, but it can be empathised with. Opened.
How many songs have been dedicated to pain, where some tortured artist angsts as he lashes out the chorus and probably feels a little better? How many inspirational posters do you see at the dentists' office saying that 'pain is just a reminder that we aren't dead', and that 'all things worth having are worth hurting for'. Like, okay. I came for a check-up, not to be assaulted by an ironically insensitive campaign to regulate toothache.
It's a tricky emotion, often the one that we would most like to get rid of. Regret, embarrassment, failure, endurance. Pressure.
And I hate the saying that life is pain, or anything worth having is worth hurting for. But also, they aren't wrong. Pain is mitigating, balancing, affords you the 'oh I won't do that again' moments. But it is like light and dark, the negation of pain is not pleasure. Nor is the reverse true in the way that darkness is the simple absence of light. But equally I just said about five things there that are about to contradict each other. Essentially, pain is rubbish but it's less rubbish if you can share that with someone. Clean the wounds together and let them start to heal, rather than poking triggers or pretending they aren't there. Even if that is the easier route to take.
This essay won't be about nerves and neurology or scientific rumination. I'll spend a lot of these pages talking about what pain is not as much as what it is, and about the things we know and hate about pain. I'll explore pain in the relationship between pain and love through a series of increasingly derivative analogies.
Here, I'll start you off with one: pain is bread.
Pain is a four-letter word for bread in French. Let's for a minute imaginatively suspend our disbelief and consider dough to be the physical manifestation of all our worldly problems. Knead it, poke it, prod it, frown at it when it splits into pieces. Cover it with a damp tea towel and ignore it for a good wedge of time. Let it rise. Kneed it again, work together. Push back against it. Try to make it soft, isn't that what we're meant to do? Make it bearable? Stretch it apart and see the light visible between the gluten.
Poke the dough. It leaves an indentation. It's satisfying so you do it again. The dough soon resembles an inverted hedgehog and you love it. It's your emotional punching bag. Paul Weiss concurs that The pain is a record of the tragic truth that something is in the process of passing from control. This loss of control can be muted in part by the attempt to share that with your partner, however.
Control is something that we can't hold on to always.
Sometimes we must let go and see where our heart rolls off to. For Weiss, this feeling of 'loss' is in proportion to the 'value' we place in it. Basically, the more we love things, the more they have the power to hurt us. Ouch.
Another John Green quote – pain demands to be felt. 14 year old me loved that quote because it sounded poetic and logical, and 20 year old me still finds comfort in its linearity. Pain is a part of a life well-lived, where you have taken risks, jumped and crashed but also felt and loved and suffered. Together. That doesn't mean to say that we have to suffer to deserve love, or to earn emotional payoffs, and sometimes we need to accept that pain doesn't always have a neat moral role, or a categorical function.
Experiencing pain: how it rules us in its absence and presence in relationships.
Sometimes pain is a frown, sometimes it's an open mouth gasp that's over as soon as it starts and sometimes it's a smile and a turned back. Pain doesn't have a shape, unit of measurement or universal threshold. That is to say that some pain swipes out your legs and ties your hands together. Some pain cuts straight to your heart. It cannot be transferred or contracted and there is means to determine conclusively 'who has it worse'. I'm not sure there needs to be. Half the time you may not even be able to conceive of how much the other person is suffering. But you owe it to them to try, just as they would for you.
The memory of pain and the anticipation of it are not the same as pain in the present tense. The fact that it will end does not mean it won't recur. But pain isn't synonymous with life. It's not at odds with it either. If anything, it's a moment. We don't all feel pain the same way.
We think we recognize the marks of physical pain yet there is no equating it – the debate between a well-placed kick to the crotch versus that of childbirth is defunct and fodder for conversation between two 12 year olds.
But in this way pain is also politics, because, like the people who suffer it, not all pain is born equal.
Childbirth and menstrual cramps are bad pain. Dirty pain, particularly when efforts are made to dismiss it, yet spiritualize and politicize in the same breath. Childbirth is blood and gore and tearing flesh, but the miracle of birth is a sacred, euphemized contract that one enters into. Phrased just so that one is trained to desire to make a 'traditional' (read, heterosexual) family, for which we must suffer.
But of course there are other types of pain. If heartbreak and rejection is a stake to the chest, there are also some emotional pains, often of neglect or rejection which register more like a bruise, building, accretive, rising and piling up, tender until you finally recognize it for what it is and suddenly can barely stand.
Social pain (rejection, isolation, fomo, essentially) triggers the same neutral pathways in your brain as contact pain such as heat burns.
One key difference is that physical pain tends to be recognized as a tactile disturbance fairly immediately upon the event occurring, while much of social pain can only be registered retroactively after the event once you have identified it. Gritting your teeth, clenching your jaw and digging your nails into your palm are physical equivalents. Where, once a certain threshold is broken, you can either recognize and cease the action, or a new threshold is brokered.
Are we not told that to break, reform and reconfigure ourselves is the way to strengthen ourselves? Tear muscles for them to reform, simply for the purpose of being more resilient to the forces that broke them in the first place. This is where you need the sounding board of another person to recognize your own triggers and pain thresholds, and their own in turn.
Pain is also exclusionary.
The culture of tiered pain or 'other people are better off, therefore you aren't entitled to feel the emotions you are experiencing' is such a toxic approach and inhibits and clogs social consciousness with yet more feelings of guilt, confusion and stress. While the medical field continues to develop this notion of measuring pain, in hospitals around the world the main means of measuring is a self-reported pain scale from 1-10.
While these can be proportionally accurate to a person's given experiences, and in-keeping with the reality of pain as a deeply subjective, relativistic principle, this self-diagnosing system insists upon a certain level of conservatism. To not so much suppress your emotions as to contextualize and subdue them in a category of your life experience: a pretty loaded decision, one which, forgive the second John Green reference, as explored in The Fault in Our Stars, leads to a culture of 'saving your 10' for a rainy day.
Not only diluting and dismissing your immediate experienced pain, but actively anticipating more suffering.
Human beings have a unique ability to convince ourselves that what we can endure and acclimatize to is a reflection of our strength or will to resist negative forces. I love the old parable that a frog that jumps into boiling water will immediately jump out and never again jump into water again. But a frog that jumps into cool water which is then boiled will die before it recognizes it's being boiled alive. Sometimes it takes years of wincing to recognize who or what is causing you pain. Sometimes it's immediately computed but cauterized and cut off from the rest of the emotional nervous system. Either way, you need to know where the waterline is to identify when it's breached.
Furthermore, as we approach pain as a social duty or an experience to overcome or move away from, we create this moral function to ensure that an individual can demonstrate the appropriate emotional gesture to a given situation. When a close family member dies, we grieve and we feel and make material our emotional pain and the loss is inversely satisfied by the creation and gathering together of people with the common experience of this person. Gifts are provided, homemade food offered and Pyrex dishes loaned and donations of a proportionate nature to your grief are anticipated.
This ritual of death and pain is not meaningless, nor symbolically bankrupt, and I don't wish to dismiss its principle.
However, it does represent our constant attempts to embrace pain by dislocating its crux. If you can ratify the will, reach £1000 in donations to her favourite charity, have a full church service (standing room only, you know!) we can feel like we are satisfying a certain arbitrary stage of grief.
Again, it's a valid progress-based metre of how one might 'deal' with or 'overcome' a certain type of pain. Can it be charted, though? Perhaps that's more of a hope, a belief in being part of a larger collective consciousness, the reassurance that we're not alone in our emotions. We cling to these gestures, but often that puts a timeline, an end point, a horizon of something better appearing to what you're experiencing. In this and many other aspects, we ask too much of ourselves. That's why we need each other. And it's why I'm still not done with this article.
Pain is a lesson to learn? God I hope not.
As I touched on earlier, pain comes with the slightly masochistic thought that we learn from it. That requires an imaginative recreation of the suffering in order to remember why you avoid it in future.
However through this recall bias - having survived it, we presume we can endure worse. This is tied to the illusion of pain being 'a good thing'.
Here, not only do we hold on to the pain as deterrent but we 'cash in' on it to improve and strengthen ourselves. So what have I concluded? Well, lots of social pain is tied upon in our being de-territorialized from who we thought we were. Losing control over the things we took for granted. Pain overlaps with injustice, outrage, indignation and surprise, but most intoxicatingly with absence: loss, regret, abandonment and rejection. But we knew that.
Pain isn't something to be overcome, embraced, ignored or disguised – no matter how much we want it to be.
At the end of the day we would do well to try to understand pain, both ours and other people's because it drives everything alongside pleasure and love and death and all the good stuff. Understanding why we feel the way we do, putting a name to things helps us to identify any underlying issues or how to proceed in the future. Look pain in the eye – don't pursue it or revel or masochistically break your leg for research, but be mindful.
This was a big word salad. But the long and short of it?
Go and find your Person and talk to them. Share your pain.