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The reality of pain

Nietzsche spoke of pain as a liberator of the spirit, but doubted that it makes us better, adding that it makes us “profounder.”

Manish Nandi | New Delhi |

“Suffering passes, but the fact of having suffered never passes.”

Pain is the ultimate truth. One moment you are thinking about God and poetry and poetic sunsets. You are talking eloquently about Thomas Mann and Thomas Merton. The next moment somebody delivers a huge punch to your stomach. Art, nature and providence disappear instantly from your universe.

It doesn’t have to be violence. You could fall from your bar stool and break your wrist. You might receive a text message that your child has lost a limb in a car accident. Your doctor could look up from a clinical report and tell you gloomily that you have three months, no more, to put your affairs in order.

Oh, sure, you have your moments of ecstasy. Your team wins the soccer tournament. You finally get the promotion you have been waiting for years. Your child tops the class and all the parents seem to think you are the architect of his success. But you know that your team was universally predicted to win. You got your promotion after many more years than unworthy colleagues. Your kid never accepted any of your suggestions and, who knows, maybe even scoffed at them with his buddies.

In any case the joy lasts for a few hours, perhaps a few days. After a week or two, what lingers at best is a vague sense of satisfaction. That seems the painful truth. Happiness seems slow to come and swift to evaporate. In retrospect, it looks fleeting if not trivial.

On the other hand, misery seems eternal, at the least, intermittent and enduring. How do you forget your gorgeous dreamhouse that a cloudburst destroyed in an hour? Or get over the slip of tongue that wrecked your splendid twenty-year career? How will you ever uproot the ‘rooted sorrow’ of the beautiful child you lost to a bungled surgery? Such pains persist forever, cloud your brightest days and haunt your ill-slept nights.

I did an exercise with my friends. I asked them to tell me of something joyful that happened in their life ten years ago. They had great difficulty recalling an event. When I reduced the period to five years, they recalled an event or two, but cited them hesitantly, as if they were embarrassed to cite something so trivial. In sharp contrast, when I asked them to tell me something tragic or disastrous that happened to them ten years ago, they instantly told me of an accident, a business reverse or a death in the family.

Shortening the time range brought a flood of painful recollections. I don’t think of my friends as a mournful lot, yet the range of their memories and the speed of their recall left me in little doubt about what weighs more on their mind. If this is our lot, what should we do when we suffer?

You have no doubt heard of the stoic response. Suffer in silence, bear your pain with fortitude. What does not kill you, they say, makes you stronger. Be brave and endure is the motto of all military training and the theme of many a popular movie. But we know that soldiers don’t return from wars quite intact. What does not kill you can still kill your finer side and bury your compassionate instinct.

My friend Vinay in California told me of a ghastly car accident: he survived and is perhaps a more cautious driver now, but it has forever robbed him of the pristine joy of driving on the highway without a care in the world. Nietzsche spoke of pain as a liberator of the spirit, but doubted that it makes us better, adding that it makes us “profounder.” I don’t know that pain has liberated my spirit, but it has certainly let me see things in a new light, even let me see new things. When my father passed away, the growing hurt made me realize how much of his breadth of spirit – varied people, unusual ideas – I had both imbibed and taken for granted.

When, more recently, my colleague and friend Dilip closed his eyes, it dawned on me how much his quiet guidance had supported me in my darkest days. I have come to love Léon Bloy’s remarkable words, “People have places in their heart which do not yet exist, and into those enters suffering in order that they may have existence.” If you love and lose your love, you will know right away what the French gadfly meant about discovering new spaces in your heart.

Then there is the other way of looking at pain. The Italian coastal town of Herculaneum was excavated in 1765 from the ashes of Vesuvius nearly 1700 years after its interment. There, in the Villa of Papyruses, we can find the most eloquent statement of the view that happiness is the purpose of life, and the best measure of its quality is joy minus pain. Epicurus, who lived three centuries before Christ, thought that lasting happiness can only come from a peaceful mind, free of pain and fear.

To achieve that, the keys he suggested were friendship, knowledge and a temperate life. The golden rule was: To live a pleasant life, live wisely and fairly, harm nobody and do not be harmed. I think of all this with a sense of shock. Are we living wisely and fairly? Most of the things we now think of now, most of the time, individually and socially – whatever else we do – seem hardly designed for wisdom or fairness. Not greater wealth, faster learning, superior technology, even better looks. None of these can reduce our pain and let us live happier than our neanderthal ancestors. Sadly, our pain might continue a while longer.

(The writer is a US-based international development advisor and had worked with the World Bank. He can be reached at [email protected])