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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: The problem of pain

by Philip Martin | November 16, 2021 at 2:00 a.m.


I woke up Sunday morning and my right arm didn't hurt.

I was stretching, and grabbed my right wrist with my left hand and pulled it above my head the way my doctor showed me. For the first time since early February, there was no hitch or knotted spasm to overcome. It just went up. Then I tentatively mimed throwing a baseball. I didn't whip my arm through full speed, but the range of motion seemed to be there. If anyone wants me, I am available to pitch again.

There was a marked difference between Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning. On Saturday, we'd taken our dogs to Emerald Park and walked around. Karen engaged me in a conversation about the different sports we had played, which led to a deep dive into baseball.

I was talking about the difficulty of playing catcher when I demonstrated the from-the-ear snap throws the old timers used to make. I felt a twinge--more annoying than acute--going through the motion half-speed. Oh yeah, the arm's still busted.

But now, after nine months, I have been cured overnight.

You will remember we had a few days of snow, ice and extraordinarily cold weather in February. On the early morning of the last day of that weather, when the ice would finally melt, I walked out in the street to check on Karen's car, for which we'd cleared a path the day before. The street looked dry. It wasn't. I slipped and landed on my right side and lay there for a moment feeling stupid. Then I realized I couldn't move my right arm.

I assumed I'd recover mobility in a few minutes and be sore for a couple of days. I managed to get up, walk to my car and drive to an appointment. For once I was grateful that I had settled on an automatic transmission in my last car. I could not have shifted gears.

By noon, I could move the arm a little bit. Propping a pillow in my lap and setting my forearm on it allowed me to type a little (though working for an hour or so without a break would make me nauseated). I fitted myself with a makeshift sling (YouTube has some handy tips). I should have gone to my doctor then, but there was no real swelling or even a bruise, so I waited a week when I was scheduled to see my doctor for a checkup anyway.

He examined my arm, determined that in the course of my normal daily routine there was nothing much I could do to further injure it, and showed how to work it through the basic range of motion. He didn't see any need for X-rays. Whether or not I had sustained a hairline fracture, my arm was definitely broken insofar as it wasn't working properly, but there was not much medical science could do. Rest and ibuprofen. It would probably be better in six weeks.

It was somewhat better in six weeks. But it wasn't right. Not until Sunday morning.

Karen says I'm like a puppy when I feel better after feeling bad. I hate being sick and rejoice when the feeling of illness is lifting. It feels good to feel good.

But I could have failed to notice my recovery, it had been so gradual. I haven't thought of my arm actually hurting for a while, and in the past month or so was only sporadically reminded of my injury. It would have been possible for weeks to go by before noticing that I was actually healed. That's how it usually goes, isn't it? You limp around for a while and then suddenly realize everything is back to normal?

The Epicureans had this idea that the absence of pain was not just the best we could hope for; it was the ultimate pleasure. So their goal was to remove all the pain of bodily want and mental disturbance.

Cicero and the Stoics pushed back against this view, arguing that happiness was more a side effect of virtue. Pain wasn't as big a problem as the fear of pain. If you could eliminate that fear, you had it mostly solved. Stoic philosopher Epictetus sounded a lot like a typical NFL quarterback in a post-game interview when he wrote that the only thing we can do is "make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens."

C.S. Lewis held a rather rosy view of pain. "I suggest to you that it is because God loves us that he gives us the gift of suffering," he wrote in his 1940 book "The Problem of Pain," in which he sought to debunk the idea that because God allows suffering, He cannot be both all-powerful and perfectly loving.

"God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world." Lewis wrote. "... we are like blocks of stone out of which the Sculptor carves the forms of men. The blows of his chisel, which hurt us so much, are what make us perfect."

Perfect in the next world, not in this one.

Lewis' view is that human beings (mis)use their God-given ability to choose to become very bad beings, and that, in our hubris, we moderns have lost all sense of our inherent wickedness. We simply don't believe that we are "mortally ill" with evil. We have lost connection with what Lewis calls "divine anger."

"Man is now a horror to God and to himself and a creature ill-adapted to the universe," he writes. "[N]ot because God made him so but because he has made himself so by the abuse of his free will."

So pain is God's way of educating our soul. It's a gift, the only way for bad men to amend their iniquities. Break out the hair shirts and scourges.

Perhaps. Those of us who don't dive so deep as Lewis might agree that pain can certainly educate character. But it can warp it. Another philosopher is credited with the aphorism "what doesn't kill me makes me stronger," which out of context reduces to a meathead T-shirt affirmation for overcoming adversity. Obviously what doesn't kill you can leave you brain dead and financially embarrassed.

But there is value in failure. We are instructed by pain--we learn how to avoid it.

I don't want to strain the metaphor. Everyone is walking around with some sort of background pain that they barely notice; a lot of us have it worse. Some complain a lot, some bear it. Had we the ability to know the shadow afflictions and secret sorrows of our fellow men, all antipathy toward those we think of as our enemies would be dissolved.

Like Michael Stipe says, everybody hurts.

But my arm is better.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at pmartin@adgnewsroom.com.


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