RINGOES, NJ. Shingles belong on rooftops. When they descend and make their home on human bodies, the situation is not right or pleasant. As I write these words, I’m suffering from a bout of shingles. You might say that this porch has shingles on the front and back, if you get my drift.
I had heard horror stories about excruciating pain and horrible rashes that last for weeks, but my doctor shrugged and said it shouldn’t be too bad. After all, I’m young, fit, and we caught it fairly early. And I must say, that compared to the worst of what I’ve heard, my case is relatively mild. I have tried to avoid pain medication and have done so except at night. I am not trying to prove anything really. And I certainly don’t have a problem with pain medication in principle. As I told my somewhat dumbfounded wife, I just wanted to see what it was like.
Well, it hurts. But the pain comes and goes. Sometimes it is sharp and piercing so that I just wince and hold myself until it passes. Sometimes it is a long, drawn-out ache. I joke with my boys that it feels like I’ve got a poodle gnawing my armpit. I’m assured that the pain will pass. The poodle will die or at least learn better manners. That assurance is helpful. There is light at the end of the tunnel. All (bad) things come to an end.
These past few days, though, have given me some time to reflect on the meaning of pain, the good, the bad, and the plain ‘ole ugly. Some pain is, of course, eminently useful. In fact, without pain, our lives would be disastrous. We pull away from a hot stove because it hurts. If we felt no pain, we wouldn’t remove our hand until we smelled burning flesh and decided that a cooked hand wouldn’t be useful. Some internal pains signal trouble that needs attention. Shooting pain in the chest and down the left arm is a powerful signal: get to the hospital.
Curiously, some pain is actually pleasant, if that is possible. When a masseuse sticks a thumb into a knotted muscle, we may groan and grimace, but in some strange way, doesn’t it feel good? Or what about spicy food? For years I shunned the stuff with a shake of the head and, what I took to be an obvious question: “Why would I intentionally inflict pain on myself?” But then my wife and I took a trip to Thailand. After a week, I was enjoying the burn, and after three weeks, I was adding more peppers to make it hotter. As any pepper-phile knows, once you start, it’s hard to stop. The pain is real, but we keep scooping it in. Scientists tell us that the capsaicin (the stuff that makes peppers hot) causes the release of endorphins in the brain, so that the pepper-eater experiences a mild euphoria, like the so-called runner’s high that happens when a runner passes a certain mental and physical hump. Yes, it hurts, but nevertheless, we seek it, enjoy it, and even pay money to get it. It may sound perverse, but never mind. Could you please pass the Tabasco?
There are, though, some pains that are, as far as I can tell, meaningless. Like the pain from shingles. The chicken pox virus, once contracted, never leaves the body. The virus makes its home in the nerve ganglia and usually slumbers quietly, like a well-behaved dog before the fireplace. But then something is triggered. The virus wakes. Nerves start barking, sending messages to the brain, but they are not signaling anything of import. It hurts. That is all. Take the anti-viral medicine and deal with it. Like a dumb animal, I suffer without any sense of the meaning in the pain. I cope the best I can and try to ignore it if possible. But ignoring pain is not easy. Maybe a person can get better at this with enough time and experience, but that is not an easily won ability or one I would seek.
I wonder if pain is more painful in our society where we have so many pain-relieving drugs. Could it be that familiarity with pain makes it less acute? Have we come to think that all kinds of pain are to be avoided at all costs? Could it be that that a culture with an unhealthy orientation toward pleasure has a correspondingly unhealthy relationship to pain?
As with many things recently, these reflections on pain turn my thoughts to the economic troubles pressing on us from all sides but whose full force is, I fear, still not yet felt. The pain on the horizon and the pain even now being felt by many is the result of systemic abuses that have gone on for much too long. For some time now, we have carried on as if the party would never end; as if our steadily increasing appetites for more stuff to consume would perpetually buoy an economic system predicated on that very desire. But the party has, it seems, come to an end with a whimper. Perhaps the bang is still in the offing. There are things to be learned here, if we are wise enough to learn them, but I am afraid that the lessons involve pain.
Yet, the manner in which our leaders are handling this mess is precisely like the person who feels deep, stabbing pains in his chest but orders another pizza (using a credit card, of course), takes another shot of tequila, and turns up the volume on the television. Deaden the pain, increase the volume of distraction, and with any luck everything will be just fine. Only things are not going to be just fine. This is not the economic or cultural equivalent of shingles—meaningless pain that can be medicated and ignored. This is a full-on heart attack.
Those on both the left and right insist that the “American way of life” is at stake and drastic measures must be enacted to ensure that it is not jeopardized. But what if the American way of life, as it has developed, is unsustainable? What if it is feverish? What if the pain we are now experiencing is the useful kind of pain indicating a problem? To ignore this kind of pain is foolishness. Alleviating it requires a change of behavior. It requires that we change our private lives, and it requires that our leaders stop providing us with pain relief that blinds us to the magnitude of the problem. Drastic measures are, indeed, required, but it’s worse than we imagine, for the problem is not completely external to us. Although they deserve their share of the blame, the problem is not simply the irresponsible rouges on Wall Street or the pandering office-holders in Washington.
The pain we feel today is the pain of a national character that has been softened and reshaped by the false promises of easy money, get-rich-quick schemes, and lives devoted to pleasure and ease rather than work, responsibility, and intangible goods that have no price. Changing deeply engrained habits is hard. It requires fortitude, commitment, and a driving desire to set another course. Yet this is precisely what is needed.
Fortunately, there are resources deep within our national character upon which to draw. We have together weathered difficult times. It might even be argued that our recent holiday from hard reality represents a temporary detour from the older and deeper virtues oriented toward duty, responsibility, and fidelity both to the past and the future. It may be that these difficult times will help to revitalize those slumbering virtues. It may help to strengthen old community ties and forge new ones. It may help us better to recognize our dependence on others and from that cultivate the habits of good neighbors. We may learn once again the importance of limits, the goodness of place, and the art of living free. Indeed, this time of troubles could be the good pain that we need to help us set our sights on what is truly important. Perhaps we may even develop a taste for it.
He saw now, it was not his suffering that destroyed the happiness of his life—a man may be happier while he suffers than when his days are good. And sufferings that are of some avail, they are like the spear-points that raise the shield on which the young king’s son sits when his subjects do him homage.
Sigrid Undset, In the Wilderness