The Loneliness of Pain
Foolish indeed would be the man who would wish to live beyond the normal span of life. Faced with a life racked with pain and misery, I don’t think he would wish to pass beyond what Tennyson calls “the goal of ordinance” — By Ramesh Beeharry
Of pain you could wish only one thing: that it should stop… In the face of pain there on heroes.
— George Orwell
The other day I popped in to see my friend Sushil whom I had not seen since Christmas. Most unlike him, he took several minutes to answer my knock. Eventually he opened the door and greeted me with his usual smile and invited me in. As I walked into the lounge, I realized there was a problem. Because there next to the settee, on the floor was a 12-inch thick mattress. Upon enquiry, he told me that he had been laid low for over a week with severe pain in the lower back. Ouch! as a fellow sufferer, I felt for him.
Anyway as he regained his bedding, I offered to make the afternoon tea which we had with some biscuits. I stayed my usual quota of one hour and, as per normal, we chatted about everything and nothing. Regarding his back, a masseur had called round twice whilst the GP had prescribed him some Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and painkillers.
Altogether the treatments were having a positive effect, but it was anybody’s guess as to when he might be really fit again. Notwithstanding, he smiled his usual smile throughout our chit-chat and even laughed at some of my silly jokes. When I left at the end I hoped that I left him feeling a tad lighter than when I arrived.
After I got back home I began to give some serious thoughts to the phenomenon of pain, and came to the conclusion that people in pain must be some of the loneliest people on Earth. You have a plaster on your arm for a sprain, and everyone will stop to ask what happened. You have an average dressing on your hand for a small or big cut, and you get plenty of consideration. In other words, you will get loads of sympathy for anything, minor or major, for anything that is visible.
The big problem with Mr Pain, no matter how severe, is that he is INVISIBLE. People can’t see your pain, no matter how many times you try to explain to them. Thus at best they think that it is not as bad as you say; at worst they believe that the problem does not exist at all! Even more seriously, pain often goes untreated if the sufferer is old, delirious, confused, semi-conscious or unconscious. In the Third World, governments tend to concentrate on health issues that are visible (and measurable) such as the death rate; and which can earn them plaudits from international organizations. Consequently, according to the Lancet, some 25m of their people die in agonizing pain every year.
The causes of pain are many and various, but most of them are acute, that is lasting for a short time. These include post-operative pain, broken limbs, cuts and bruises. Long-term pain, which can last a lifetime, is due to chronic conditions such as Fibromyalgia, Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) and Parkinsonism. Most severe chronic pains are probably associated with old age, especially if the person happens to get something additional like RA on top of the “wear and tear” discomfort of worn-out joints.
That is why I struggle to understand people who want to live to be a hundred-plus. They always begin by telling you about their maternal uncle Shiva who lived to be 105, and was still able to run to catch the bus and travel the length and breadth of the country. But for every Shiva, there are hundreds of old men and women who are incapacitated by the diseases of old age (let’s face it: old age in itself is a serious disease!) and immobilized by debilitating pain. You need only visit a geriatric ward or an old people’s home to meet these brave soldiers. However because they are usually out of sight, nobody ever mentions these Mr and Mrs Tithonuses.
I first came across “Tithonus” while studying English Literature (alas rarely taught in our schools now) for my SC exams many moons ago. It is a poem that was written by Alfred Lord Tennyson in the guise of an elegy to his close friend Arthur Hallam.
According to Greek mythology, Eos the Goddess of the Dawn (Roman Aurora) fell in love with Tithonus, a handsome Trojan prince and bore him two boys. However she soon realized that, unlike the Gods, her prince charming was a mere mortal who would grow old and die one day. So she beseeched Zeus to endow him with immortality, to which Zeus agreed but somewhat reluctantly. Thus Tithonus acquired eternal life, but Eos omitted to ask for him to be endowed with eternal youth as well.
I am sure the reader can imagine the rest. Whilst Eos rejuvenates herself at the break of every Dawn, poor Tithonus grows older and more infirm by the day. Unfortunately he is condemned to live forever because “the Gods themselves cannot recall their gifts,” the equivalent of the Hindu Gods’ Vardaan. So as he ages and is afflicted with disease and discomfort, he talks of “cruel immortality” and envies the “happy men who have the power to die.” Pathos, indeed!
In the circumstances foolish indeed would be the man who would wish to live beyond the normal span of life, the biblical three-scores-and-ten. Faced with a life racked with pain and misery, I don’t think he would wish to pass beyond what Tennyson calls “the goal of ordinance.”
We often hear people say “quality rather than quantity?” Yet far too often science is used to extend life, seemingly without much consideration given to quality. Sometimes tiny babes are subjected to a series of complex surgical procedures in an effort to correct severe congenital defects with hardly any consideration for the quality of life they will have even if the operations are successful. Likewise reanimation of sick, old people serves humanity badly if we end up with souls in vegetative bodies. There is just no glory in prolonged suffering.
Pain is all about waiting.
Waiting for it to stop.
Waiting for medication to work.
Waiting to see the doctor.
Waiting for others to believe you.
Waiting for the future cure.
People in pain…wait.
* Published in print edition on 26 January 2018
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