Learning from Pain

In evolutionary terms, pain is there to protect us. It informs us of threats to our fragile bodies so that we can reduce, or avoid harm and know when we need to do something different, or patch ourselves up. Emotional pain can reinforce experience of body pain. It also speaks to us of social discomfort – as collaborative creatures we need our social connections to be good, so emotional pain around this has an obvious survival use as well. Pain can teach us about the importance of things we’ve lost, and about social acceptability.

Pain is one of those issues around which we’ve tried, as a society, to change our relationship with nature. We seek to avoid pain – which is natural – but have lost the recognition of what it’s for and why it matters.

Western medicine focuses on symptoms, so the answer to pain tends to be pain relief. Not lifestyle changes, and unless you’ve taken obvious physical damage, not always any solution to the cause whatsoever. For example many women give birth in stressful environments surrounded by noise, light, strangers and uncertainty. What we give them, is pain relief. When people suffer the pain of work stress and mental ill health, we give them drugs to make them feel calmer – we give them pain relief, not situation relief.

We get a lot of cultural messages in the rich western world about never feeling any kind of pain. Adverts to tell us we should not go hungry between meals (hello obesity epidemic). We don’t want to feel uneasy, threatened or alarmed so we’re susceptible to politicians with easy solutions that require us to make no changes. No matter the cost those apparently easy solutions inflict on someone else. The push for excessive ease in all things alienates us from our bodies, and from each other, and from the world. Only when we are willing to look at the cost in pain of western ease will we be able to tackle many of the world’s most pressing problems.

I must also acknowledge that there are people for whom pain is a constant, and no obvious explanations exist. Even in this, I would say we need to learn from pain. A person in constant pain should have the right to whatever relief they need, and in the meantime the rest of our society should be looking at the implications of trauma, long term stress, pollution, and recognising that anyone born with something that hurts them should be entitled to care. These too are lessons from pain that we are not taking onboard collectively

The lesson from nature is that pain itself is often not a terrible thing. What it does, if you let it, is warns you about things that could be a lot worse. A mild pain acknowledged now can save your life – that’s as true of bodily pain as emotional pain. The pain of loss acknowledged now might save an ecosystem, or a species. Pain exists to help us navigate our way through the world, but if we’re afraid to feel it and afraid to look at its causes, we can entirely miss the point.


About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

4 responses to “Learning from Pain

  • juliebond

    I have managed to get your posts to come in to my email now. It took a bit of searching around but I finally found the right place!
    I think a lot of the difficulty with pain of any sort nowadays is that it tends to be seen as failure, and we’re just told to take a pill of some kind or do something to ‘take your mind off it’. It’s certainly not exactly a long term, real solution and hardly ever works all that well as a short term one.

  • angharadlois

    This is very timely – I have been scribbling down thoughts this morning after a chat with a therapist, who said something I’ve heard a lot recently: “you wouldn’t try to fix a broken leg all by yourself, would you?” Being a literary-minded type, I started questioning the analogy. What I suffer from is more like the mental equivalent of chronic pain. If physical pain was my problem, would I just swallow painkillers and carry on regardless? Maybe. As my GP said, “you don’t have to suffer needlessly.” But the painkillers don’t heal the pain. Therapy might. Or, more likely, a combination of therapy and lifestyle changes, with painkillers to alleviate the pain in the meantime. And that’s where I’m at right now.

    My biggest worry is that this human life will always hurt too much to heal.

    • Nimue Brown

      Even if we can’t heal entirely, something that makes it somewhat better, even if that’s only some of the time, is still worth going after. it doesn’t have to be perfect to be worth having, after all!

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