This essay is not entirely about pain. It is actually, at least to me, primarily on the nature of time. But I have looked over my own writing and realized that I don’t write about pain nearly as much as I would have thought I would. I know why. I also know why I was surprised by that, why I was surprised for all but two seconds, and why I noticed this exactly now.
These are not, most of them, new discoveries either about pain or about time, but I find that some subjects bear occasional reminders. Plus, I’d like to offer an explanation and something of an apology to my regular readers for having gone almost three weeks without posting an essay on this site. So here we go.
Almost three weeks ago I broke a rib. It was a little nothing of a boring accident – so boring, in fact, that my friends are coming up with more entertaining versions of the story, from break-dancing to saving drowning people from a lake to wrestling with God, like Jacob. The reality is, nothing happened. I leaned awkwardly on a car door, and “crack”!
If you’ve had a broken rib yourself or know someone who had, you know that, unless it’s a bad break that injured a lung, there’s nothing to do for treatment: no cast to be put on, no position to maintain. No activity to refrain from exactly, because doing everything hurts, including breathing. You just have to live with it until it heals, for about six weeks. My lungs are fine. Everything is fine. I’m living with it. But the thing is, I’ve had similar pain before – broken ribs in the same place, probably the same one – at a terrible, dark, desperate time in my life. A long time ago, decades ago. That time was such a nightmare that, even after having dealt with it after a protracted struggle, I avoid thinking about it. I acknowledge its presence and leave it in relative peace in a corner of my mind, in the past.
Except now. I noticed it after a couple of days: this constant, familiar pain in my side began to bring up memories. The past protruding into the present, as it does with smells, with images, with sounds. And the pain that isn’t really so bad bothers me – more than it would otherwise.
Pain is a very subjective thing. The “amount” of pain is not possible to measure. In the years I worked as a medical interpreter, I regularly noticed the wild inconsistency in the patients’ responses when doctors tried to use the “pain scale” in ascertaining the degree of their physical suffering. The “stoic” patients in cold sweat, with a heart rate of 140, would barely keep from moaning and still indicate 5 out of 10 on the pain scale. The “panicky” patients would always jump straight to 10, no matter what hurt and how much, even with a splinter, making the exercise useless. I often thought that, other than a curve of chronic pain for a single patient, the pain scale was, if anything, more helpful in showing the patient’s emotional state – because we don’t know how to compare the firing of pain neurons, but sometimes we can tell what a cry for help sounds like. When we are scared, angry, or frustrated, we scream, “Ten!”
When it comes to the physical state of the body, I am not the healthiest person in the world. Besides a variety of restrictions and intermittent acute conditions, for most of my life I have lived with chronic pain – and for most of my life, chronic pain added so much burden to my daily existence that it drained me of strength and hope, turned every chore into a heroic challenge, made me resent every necessity to smile, to get up in the morning, slowed my search for meaning to a desperate crawl. And when three and a half years ago Meaning finally dawned on me and everything changed, the pain changed too, but I was not miraculously cured of my ailments.
I thought a lot about pain in those days. Flooded with endorphins from the joy of the Living Water I was drinking, I had less pain than before my “conversion,” but I still had it, and I have it now. My immune system improved, but none of my long-term diagnoses simply evaporated. And yet, everything changed. The burden was gone, a smile wouldn’t come off my face, and pain was just…there, but it was all right. Since then and now, this is how it is: I know that pain comes and goes, that when it’s worse, it will become better, that it will probably get worse again, but that in the only sense that really matters, it is all right.
The Meaning that changed every fiber of me in the winter of 2010 did not rearrange my molecules into a perfect body. It took away my fear. With the realization of why pain happens, of how much more than my body I am and yet how intimately I am my body, of how passing and yet enduring each moment of time really is – of how impossible it is to talk about “moments” and mean it in the context of this mind-boggling, swirling phenomenon that is non-linear time – I no longer focused on pain the way I used to, and I no longer blamed my body for it as if it were a thing that hated me. Experiencing Love Universal so immediately and absolutely, I now had infinite hope and infinite assuredness. And I was no longer afraid.
They call this “faith.”
What I had always, in vague and strangely dreamy ways, suspected about time, was now clear though still ineffable: There is a very good reason why we perceive time in a linear fashion, but it’s really, really not. And so two Judeo-Christian truths that seem mutually exclusive now made perfect, simple sense: “Everything passes” but “nothing is lost.”
Because I know these two truths completely, pain can be a challenge, but it can never kill my joy. Pain can spoil my mood but never drain my hope. While it may last until I die and grow worse, and my body will fail in new ways, pain is a thing that passes, and, though a part of my life, it hasn’t bothered me for over three years.
Many people around me are in pain. Most of the world is in pain, and I see the difference in how it affects those who have the consolation of Meaning and those who don’t. I see people, some of whom I know well and love deeply, who persevere through terrible pain, day after day, but the toll upon their souls is taken less by the firing of neurons and more by the pain’s ugly retinue: the worry about tomorrow, hopelessness, heavy memories, and the fear of helplessness and loss. And I wish I could say to them, “Don’t worry, my beloved! Don’t be afraid.” But their fear is as real as their pain, and I cannot change their tomorrow, and I cannot describe the swirl of time and the mind-boggling onion of the universe come together in Meaning and Love.
There is an adorable Soviet cartoon, one of many such animated shorts that had taught us, Soviet children, to reflect upon reality and language, to approach life with thought and care. It’s one of a long series about four friends who live in the jungle: Monkey, Parrot, Baby Elephant, and Boa Constrictor. One morning Monkey wakes up upset because, once again, yesterday’s promise is not fulfilled: yesterday they told her the next day would be tomorrow, but it’s today again. Every day it’s today. And tomorrow keeps being tomorrow and never comes.
The friends gather to discuss the problem of how to make the future happen if it doesn’t happen by itself and decide to declare today to be tomorrow. The future, absent all this time, is now present. Of course, the future means New Year’s, and Monkey, Elephant, and Boa are preparing to greet the new year until Parrot points out the problem: skipping over the present to jump to the future means discarding everything the present has to offer. Elephant won’t have his birthday this year. The green bananas will never ripen. Why not live today, the day we have, and let tomorrow come tomorrow?
The animals settle down, contented, with the troubles and rewards of their little lives unfolding as they should. And on their cute animated faces, patience.