Thursday, August 9, 2012

No gain; No pain I

On an overcast Monday evening, Raph and I skated the freshly built Croydon Skatepark. I felt energised (having drunk a long black en route) and was on fire from the moment I got on my board. With increased confidence, I challenged myself to, and eventually nailed, boardslides down a low hand-rail spanning three long steps - simple for many but a big deal for me.

As we were leaving, Raph suddenly fixated on landing a bs boardslide down a lengthy hubba - a ledge on an incline. After much effort, sweat, and repeated bails, he triumphed. We were ecstatic. It was the classic 'gain after pain' archetype. Hyped-up, I decided to give it a go. On the first attempt I almost succeeded; on the second, I sprained my knee. Within an hour my knee joint inflamed and I was in agony. Even the slightest leg movement yielded a shooting pain. I knew then that I'd be out of action for at least a week.

Oh well, at least I had the opportunity to meditate on the nature of pain.                  

Houston taking a spill
The basic biological explanation for why sentient beings experience pain is that pain is necessary for self-preservation. Usually, pain signals that there's something wrong with a body part and that it needs attention. Additionally, it serves to warn creatures that a certain behaviour or object is dangerous. Hence, one avoids touching fire because of the resultant pain.  

However, pain is not always associated with the avoidance of injury or death, mysteriously, it accompanies the birth of new life as well. In fact, in eastern philosophy pain is seen as a veritable hallmark of life. Thus in dreams, where consciousness parts somewhat with the body and enters 'imaginative space', gruesome injuries and accidents, excruciating in the corporeal world, are painless.

The Scream
However, not all life forms experience pain, and certainly not as acutely as humans. A centipede may lose a few legs and continue on its way without distress. In contrast, the dismembering of a human limb is agonizing. Similarly, fish reproduce by easily laying multiple eggs, a dramatically different experience to a woman's labour pangs.

Is the extra pain experienced by people just a sign of human frailty and inferiority?

On the surface level, we are much more delicate than animals. We require shelter, clothes, shoes, cooked food, the right temperature - even comforts and perks - otherwise we become ill, fataly ill. We are not exactly tigers, not even bunny rabbits.  

In fact, however, the opposite is true. Because other species procreate more prolifically and often have a redundancy of body parts, they needn't be as protected from injury for their survival. In contrast, because the human body is so finely tuned, - created in the Divine image - every nuance of his being is important, and more so, sacred. The extra pain in humans is God's protective mechanism for what he cherishes most. At war, one places most guards around a king, not a foot soldier.

Additionally, humanity suffers more pain because he possesses superior intellect and insight which allow him to infer the consequences of the pain. For example, he understands that a broken leg can prevent him from engaging in his favorite sport for months, cost him his job, make him more dependent on others, make life harder for others, and generally limit his freedom. This awareness of the ramifications of the pain can exacerbate it.       

The human was also endowed with a heightened level of cognitive sensitivity in order that he may be 'touched' and 'moved' by the most subtle and elusive of things: abstract thoughts. No other species on the face of the earth can have direct contact with it, not only because they lack the intellect, but because they lack the required sensitivity. In other words, we feel more pain than other creatures because our distinguished raison detre is to bridge heaven and earth.

The ancient Hebrew language helps us further appreciate the nature and purpose of the greater pain level of humanity.

The letters of the Hebrew word for pain, 'Tsar', can be rearranged to spell, 'Atsor', to 'pause and absorb'. This intimates that pain often brings a halt to the hum drum and routine of a person's life, making her aware of her fragility and mortality, heightening her sense of dependence upon God or the existence of an afterlife. Simply put, pain tends to soften the ego, making it more receptive to the transcendental.         

Another lesson can be gleaned from the Hebrew word for affliction, 'Nega', which has the same letters as the word 'Oneg', pleasure. The two words are intertwined to intimate that God 'creates one thing opposite the other.' That is, because the human was granted the greatest capacity for pleasure, he is inevitably prone to its negative counterpart: affliction. This is largely because the existence of pain allows one to discern pleasure, much like dark allows one to discern light.

This last point helps somewhat demistify why human mothers especially suffer during childbirth. Because she can delight in the miracle of bringing a soul into the world, her experience is heightened by the pain. Mothers often experience absolute bliss once their newborn baby is placed into their arms. In part because the pleasure is experienced on the back drop of pain, and in part, because, as  she caressingly embraces her child she thinks: 'You were worth it; I'm glad I did this for you.'

(This applies even if she had an epidural, for the birthing process is still highly distressing, and dangerous. Though it may help explain why many mothers prefer to have a completely natural delivery.)

To be continued...

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