There is much to be learned from pain. Especially physical pain. I would never say it warrants being sought out or needlessly extended but there is always a lesson in it. It makes for a good metaphor. And metaphors are the key to understanding the world, as well as ourselves.
I fractured my elbow recently in a fall from a bike. I got up to try to shake it off. Stay with it, I told myself as I made my way to the gym to clean up. Do you want you need to do in spite of it. The value of physical pain is that it is finite. It ends when the ailment ends. We can use this as an opportunity to push on through, with the safety net of knowing it will eventually be over. It is practice.
For every physical pain or ailment, there are a hundred emotional and metaphysical pains. Not just pains but conditions: anxiety, discomfort, fear, uncertainty, and failure. We may be scared to acknowledge these or have no faith that we can bear them. Our injuries, our broken bones, aches, flus, migraines, and diseases—the distresses that come, are dealt with in time and then go (thought they occasionally leave a lasting trail), they are proof that we have what it takes to reach inside and deal with the others.
When you run and you get a blister. It hurts like hell for a minute—gets hot and pulsates, like an ember caught between the sock and the foot. If you’ve ever pushed through it, what happens is disgusting but wonderful at the same time. The skin bursts and the puss floods out, the body’s way of putting out the fire. The body, we forget, has all sorts of mechanisms designed to numb and treat pain. And so suddenly, it doesn’t hurt anymore.
Pain is a lesson in fortitude and also in self-awareness. In knowing our limits and our vulnerabilities. In a way it is a reminder that we are alive. Small or big, it prickles our senses and wakes them up—brings us back into the present, pulls us from our thoughts and to the physical. In many cases, it is a message that we are not in control.
What surprised me with my arm was that there was little sharp pain—sharp pain is easy to know what to do with. Take a pill. Clean a wound. See a doctor. But dull pain, dull pain is harder. We’re not as sure where to place it. Do we ignore and hope it will go away? Its what I did. All I felt was heaviness. Right up through the x-ray a few days later, I was sure it was nothing. Then it rose up and hit me in the room: I’m going to faint. I’m going to pass out right here from the pain in the middle of it all and promptly did.
We are not in control of pain. No matter how hard we try. Not of the cause or the duration—only the response. Through it we are given an opportunity to act our principles: justice, kindness, selflessness, moderation, self-direction. It offers the reminder that though pain is inevitable, suffering is not.
It’s funny because many of the toughest people shrink from facing these issues. Or are easily knocked around by it. They forget to stay with it, to push through, to do what they need to do in spite of it. Yet they face and endure the most trying physical calamities on a constant basis. This is to refuse to learn the lessons of pain. A failure to see what a calming, reassuring metaphor it is.