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.