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

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Mark T. Mitchell
Mark T. Mitchell teaches political theory at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, VA. He is the author Michael Polanyi: The Art of Knowing and The Politics of Gratitude: Scale, Place, and Community in a Global Age (Potomac Books, 2012). He is co-editor of another book titled, The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry. Currently he is writing a book on private property. In 2008-9, while on sabbatical at Princeton University, he and Jeremy Beer hatched a plan to start a website dedicated to political decentralism, economic localism, and cultural regionalism. A group of like-minded people quickly formed around these ideas, and in March 2009, FPR was launched. Although he was raised in Montana and still occasionally longs for the west, he lives in Virginia with his wife, three sons and one daughter where they are in the process of turning a few acres into a small farm. See books written by Mark Mitchell.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Mark,

    Thank you for comparing our economic situation to a heart attack. It is nice to know that are situation maybe fatal but if we are lucky it just needs surgery.

    I noticed that you in your last full paragraph mention that we have weathered difficult times in the past. I am in my mid 40s and do not really remember the Carter or Reagan recessions nor as a teenager did I really weather those times. I would argue that many in this country have not weathered the tough times you are talking about but instead this is the first time they have been through such a tough situation. We are hearing that we are close to the Great Depression which used to mean that the new game system is not coming out till Christmas.

    When it comes to national character in the preceding paragraph it looks as if you are saying that we can all be Horatio Alger’s characters if we embrace hard work and responsibility and remember the intangibles that are important like family and caring about your neighbors (or in some cases just talking to them and knowing their names). If that is all it took I believe that many would qualify for this as I am sure you saw when you were in Thailand. There are many places in the world where the culture has these fine points but wallows in poverty (I will admit though in many cases the people are happier until they see what someone else has).

    There must be something more in our national character than hard work and responsibility and intangibles like family. So what intangible makes the American national character different from these other countries that seem to have the same character? Or is the problem not in the national character but a flaw in who is allowed to hold power and make decisions over our daily lives (politicians and corporations).

    I would also ask if the immigrants that have come to this country have the same national character to call upon. The make of this country has changed over the last couple of decades and many do not share this national character that you talk about.

    Organic Garden tip of the day – Plant Marigolds either before or after Okra in the same bed to fight nematodes.

  2. Great post. It reminded me of something my grandfather, who I vividly remember struggling through shingles in his old age, once said:

    Take away my capacity for pain and you rob me of the possibility for joy.

  3. When I was in college I had to go to the dentist because of a rotten tooth that was causing severe pain. In the nearest “city” (small town in rural Ky) the local dentist agreed to address my urgent need. I opened my mouth to point out the problem tooth and he stuck a needle in my gum and mumbled that the tooth had to be pulled and added that it would take ten minutes for the numbing to take effect.
    After five minutes he how the gums felt. “It’s getting there” I replied. When he looked into my open mouth instead of allowing another five minutes the guy just pulled the bad tooth out in about two seconds. “You know,” he said, “most of your pain was in your head not your mouth. Don’t get so anxious or afraid when you experience pain next time.”

    The present turn of fortune and identity will certainly be painful. But it can elicit an appropriate response if we refuse to participate in fear mongering, blaming and divisiveness that only promises much greater suffering. We worsen the pain when we shout, scream, and curse each other. But then how could the politicians raise money for reelection.

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