I started writing this column on Thursday morning, as I emerged from a haze of pain and pain medications. The day before, Wednesday, I had plastic surgery on my face to remove pre-cancerous basal-cell lesions brought on by too much sun in my youth.
This was my third session. Originally I had seven spots removed. Then I had to have four of them done over, because the first session didn’t get all the suspicious cells.
As surgery goes, these were minor -- certainly when compared to organ transplants and amputations. As pain goes, though, these surgeries were an eye-opener.
Another writer once sent me this line: “There is no such thing as a pain thermometer.”
That is, there’s no objective way to measure the pain someone is feeling. Sure, you can rank pain on a scale of one to ten. But, for the same ailment, my two might be your eight. Or vice versa.
Pain is intensely personal.
A dangerous equation
The late Robert Schuller, pastor and founder of the Crystal Cathedral in California, had a number of pet phrases. One was, “There’s no gain without pain.”
Tragically, that sets up an equation -- that pain and gain go together. Suffer enough, and God will provide the gain, whether it’s financial or emotional.
On that belief, medieval monks flagellated themselves with a miniature “cat-of-nine-tails’ whip, believing that through pain, they could come closer to sharing Jesus’ experience.
British boarding schools used to beat boys unmercifully, to “make a man out of them.”
The “gain needs pain” mantra makes a virtue out of inflicting pain.
I argue that pain has only one useful function -- it warns us that something’s wrong.
Pain itself has no beneficial effects. It does not make us noble. It does not make us brave. If it makes us strong, it makes us strong in spite of the pain, not because of it.
A sensitive area
I was not prepared for the pain I felt when the anesthetic wore off.
The human skull has a very thin covering of skin. little more than a shower cap. That skin is laced with nerves and blood vessels -- the reason your head bleeds so profusely when you bang it on a cupboard door.
Every beat of my heart pumped a pulse through those blood vessels. Right underneath all those stitches. My head felt as though it would explode.
Each pulse of pain provoked other muscles -- in my legs, my feet, my fingers -- to twitch randomly.
I can understand now why some people in pain injure themselves more, just to provide an alternate source for their pain.
By the second and third surgeries, I was better prepared. My doctor prescribed some low-dose morphine pills.
Last night, as I lay in bed waiting for the morphine to kick in, I tried reasoning with myself.
Other people have worse pain, I told myself. Much worse pain. If they’re trapped in the debris of a collapsed building, for example. If they have some forms of cancer. If they’re sold into sex slavery. If they’re constantly attacked for their skin or their religion.
At least I know my pain will go away in a day or so; theirs won’t.
Victims of torture face an even worse future. And don’t kid yourself torture doesn’t happen anymore. The only thing torture victims can look forward to is that tomorrow’s pain will be worse than today’s. Because that’s what torturers specialize in doing.
It didn’t make me feel any better.
When someone’s in ICU, it doesn’t help to know that millions of others share the same virus. That thousands of other wives have been widowed. That other kids have broken their arm. That almost everyone over a certain age has arthritis.
All that matters is me. Right now.
Pain, in that sense, is narcissistic.
So don’t expect Donald Trump to turn into the Dalai Lama because he caught the virus that he scorned all year.
I hope -- after people stop blurting, “Omigod-whathappenedtoyou?” -- I can remember that it’s not my job to offer solutions. Or to judge whether someone is exaggerating their trauma Or to put their pain into a broader perspective.
When I feel better -- as I know I will -- my job is to hear their pain as they are right now. If I can offer comfort, if I can ease their pain, so much the better.
But it’s their pain, not mine. And only they know how bad it is.
Copyright © 2020 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups encouraged; links from other blogs welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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Last week, I argued that we need to concentrate our efforts on the irresponsible spreaders of Covid-19, not just the potential victims, mainly elderly. Two readers thought I was overly simplistic. (A third, anonymous, “took umbrage” at my suggestion that anyone over 70 was already “on their last legs.”)
Sandy Warren wrote, “Some of the blame currently being heaped on young people for irresponsible recklessness may be unfair. Media portrayal is not always balanced and it is very easy to write horror stories based on a picture in a bar. The 20- and 30-somethings I know are being very responsible about social distancing. For those of us who are retired, it is no problem to maintain good social distance. However, for younger people who have to go out to work, it is a much riskier scenario, and it could well be that this is a significant source of infection in those age groups.”
Isabel Gibson thought we needed to continue efforts on the “frail elderly”: “Our public-health officials in Ontario say they're staggered by the recent upswing in number of contacts. As the tracers go back through each confirmed case to get their contacts over the previous 7 to 10 days, they're getting some folks with 200 to 300 contacts in that period.
“I don't think I even know 200 with whom I'm on socializing terms.
“The overwhelming majority of that infected younger cohort will have no ill effects, or no serious ones. The frail elderly who are infected as collateral damage, as it were, are a different story.
“If we can't get through to that critical minority of thoughtless transmitters, then we must focus on protecting the potential victims. Not by isolating them from family and caregivers to prevent infection -- an isolation that is, I think, a fate worse than death, and too often not even a replacement for it -- but by finding other, more expensive ways of limiting exposure. Rapid tests, more staff in nursing homes, options for care at home with support staff, and so on.”
I had offered to send my spreadsheet to anyone who doubted my calculations. Only one person took me up on that offer, Hugh Pett. “I do not doubt your calculations,” Hugh wrote, “but I enjoy working with spreadsheets. They are useful for doing ‘what-if’ scenarios.”
James Russell sent the column out to his own mailing list. He cited my line, “Our tactics need to change. To defeat COVID-19 we now need to focus on transmitters, not victims.” as the “single best line I’ve heard on this subject yet!”
James went on, “Detailed information about where transmission is actually happening (Which bar? Which nearest intersection?) would be enormously helpful, both for people deciding whether to rush to a testing station and for those wishing to sleep better at night.”
John McTavish flatters me: “Another trenchant piece by the United Church's greatest journalist.”
Sherman Bishop shifted his focus to mental development: “I don’t disagree with anything you said in your column about how long it takes to fully develop a human brain. Your points are well taken on why younger demographics are more prone to infections from a coronavirus than are older demographics. But like any single answer it does not tell the whole story.
“I am in that older group (upper 60s), and am appalled how many [of my age] practice behaviors just as foolish as those of 20-year-olds. I should say that I see this happening south of the 49th parallel… How can people who are generally nice folks, be so quickly transformed into irrational lunatics who believe that 200,000 dead Americans are somehow a ‘fake news’ story concocted by the main stream media?
“Perhaps the answer is found in the folksy wisdom attributed to Mark Twain, ‘It is easier to fool a lot of the people then to convince some of the people that they have been fooled’.”
Bob Rollwagen compared the Canadian experience with Australia’s: “Melbourne had 1000 cases a day for second wave, three weeks ago. Today they are at 10 cases. Their lockdown was a full return to phase one, and makes Canada’s provincial leaders look confused and lost. Ontario has done nothing in six months to insure that no more seniors are killed. Yesterday we had close to 40 seniors’ homes in crisis. The government is wondering how to get more care workers, trained. And too many are worrying how to pay for it. As Trump illustrates, the privileged don’t need to be afraid of Covid.
“If you want to get into statistics, only 20% of the ‘Baby Boom’ has passed 70 so the crisis that will make Covid look like mild food poisoning is only a decade away.”
And, speaking of Australia, they are apparently allowed to sing down there. Bob Warrick wrote, “Our new congregation in formation had its first service on Sunday. Several commented on the quality of the singing as being a highlight of the afternoon, which contributed to the establishing of community.”
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ALVA WOOD ARCHIVE
The late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures now have an archive (don’t ask how this happened) on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. Feel free to browse all 550 columns.