No Pain, No Gain

Stuart Vail

Pain: that not-so-subtle messenger that reminds us that we are alive. Last night my wife was very much alive. She suffered the aftermath of a root canal, or a badly-done root canal. Either there was still more infection or the temporary crown was set too high -- it doesn’t matter -- pain was there in all its glory: center stage, in-your-face, rock’n’roll, screamin’ the blues, triple-A, blue ribbon, first-class pain. Now, she can handle most pain; her threshold is amazing. Last night was different, though. I couldn’t imagine enduring that kind of agony. When I have my headaches and back problems, I can’t live with myself. Either will immobilize me. I’m a wimp in the “it hurts” department.

Women, in general, have a greater tolerance for pain than men. Imagine a man going through childbirth. If it were our role to give birth, we would become extinct after the last of our generation. But is pain something that is ever-present in all of us? Do natural antibodies and immune agents numb us to the constant grinding of joints, expanding and contracting of muscles, pulling of ligaments and tendons, and rushing of blood through stretching arteries and veins? Does it actually hurt to carry around all this weight? How about having a sac of hydrochloric acid constantly churning, grinding, and chemically breaking-down food right inside of us? Or when that sac is empty, what about the pain of the acid contacting nothing but our own tissue?

Maybe, as long as our immune system is healthy, we are deadened to all the pain that is always just below the surface. A slight dip in our immuno-levels could very suddenly make us aware of a headache, a cramp, a stomach ache, or any other symptom of the biological violence that is going on all the time, just below our conscious radar. Then on top of all that we add the pain of hard labor, stress, accidents, surgery, disease, and the disuse of joints and muscles from a sedentary life. For all that, we need synthetic pain relievers to add to what is already working overtime inside of us. We gobble copious amounts of aspirin, Ibuprofin, Acetaminophen, codeine, Valium, alcohol, sleeping pills -- anything to deaden the pain of our raw screaming nerves.

What is pain? What is original pain? Was it in the death of Abel? The pain of Cain lies mainly in the plain. His brother feels no pain. He crossed the ultimate threshold. Pain is for the living, the survivors. Sometimes the worst pain is fear, loss, heartbreak, being let down, disappointment, failure. But no pain, no gain. They say that in athletics. Pumping iron actually tears the muscles. Bulk is attained through those muscles healing and then being retorn again and again on a regular basis. How about in relationships? Can we really appreciate a good marriage without having experienced a failed one? Is the deeper the hurt, the greater the balm? Will having survived a decade of marital agony make the next relationship better? In my case it did. It’s not a matter of constantly comparing, but I can fully appreciate respect, courtesy, love, and having someone who truly has a concern for my personal and creative endeavors. The terrible pain of the past is now just a memory, thanks to the great healer “time” and my new marriage.

I see young kids holding hands, kissing, dating, and going through all the necessary rituals of adolescence. For them, this is it: this boyfriend or girlfriend is the one with whom they will spend the rest of their lives. This person is the embodiment of forever. What they don’t realize is that the person in their arms may be their introduction to the world of emotional pain -- a first-class, front-row ticket to Hell. According to statistics, in most cases this person will either forget them, be disloyal to them, fall out-of-love with them, abuse them, beat them, emotionally destroy them, or perhaps even kill them. The high-school-sweetheart relationship that succeeds is a rare one. And that’s not to say that the ones that do succeed are pain-free. Pain is a very necessary part of the health of the relationship. The strength gained from rising above and conquering the pains of living can only reinforce the union.

No pain, no gain. Kids have to survive the agonies of heartbreak for the next relationship. Some aren’t strong enough. A schoolmate of mine blew his brains out over a failed love affair, and he was only seventeen at the time. What a cruel, painful time of life that can be: the pain of friendships, the pain of love, the pain of parents’ expectations, the pain of not being accepted, the pain of losing one’s friends when moving to a new school. In addition to the parents bearing their own scars from growing up, they suffer the pain of their children, the pain of their jobs, the pain of money problems, their own failures, lost dreams, and . . . .

Guess what? Kids, it’s all ahead of you: broken marriages, unemployment, debt, estrangement from your children, lawsuits, sickness, death -- pain everywhere. That’s life. But the mountain peaks make the valleys all worthwhile: The triumph of bliss over loss. We need to expand those moments of bliss so that they outnumber and eventually cover the valleys of pain. The triumph of the human spirit is nature’s natural pain killer.

©2002 Stuart Vail


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