Suffering: Is It All Relative?

One of the easiest ways of learning about yourself is by comparing yourself with someone else. I can honestly say I do this all the time — even if its an expression of incredulity or prejudice. Social psychologists have spent a lot of time and energy investigating the social aspect of humanity. In many ways, we know a lot; we understand discrimination and prejudice, conformity, and the self-concept. That doesn’t mean we know everything, though. People often falsely conclude that the absence of total understanding is the presence total relativity. Our world is plagued by this post-modern meileu; where everything is relative and the only important aspects of life worth anything are pragmatic. Speaking as someone who suffers from chronic pain, I can tell you that its not totally relative.

I haven’t always been in chronic pain. My condition, for a long time, was such that I only felt painafter exerting myself. If I went for a run or a long walk, my knees would hurt. This was my life for about 16 years. At the time, I thought it was the worst thing in the world; I was jealous that my friends didn’t have to take breaks or experience pain the way that I did, and how often I did. I thought for sure this was what it meant to suffer. Even in Grade 11 when I injured both my shoulders and started to experience somewhat intractable pain — that is, pain even in the absence of pain causing stimuli — was nothing compared to the amount of pain I’m in now. I know what its like to have to plan my movements, to express emberassingly public reluctance that’s often misconstrued as reclusivness and rudeness when my friends ask me if I want to go to the bar, or camping.

Obviously trying to explain that pain can be objectively qualified by offering up subjective experiences is slightly ironic. I realize that. But induction is always probable at best, and I’ll try and ‘offer-up’ as many relevant ‘for-instances’ as possible; ultimately, though,  its up to the individual whether or not they wan’t to accept that for some, pain isn’t purely relative. Pain is objective when you qualify it by its effects on functioning. Much like blindness is objectively qualified by how much a person can see, pain can be objectively qualified by how much a person can do.

If pain doesn’t interfere with your life, then it can be classed as relative:
Very rarely does pain not interfere with your life — whether by causing distress, effecting what activities you can do and negatively impacting your relationships; however, I’m going to define ‘interfere’ as preventing someone from completing daily acts of living: gathering and preparing food, cleaning, and working. These three classes of things we’ll use to measure pain’s interference. When pain interferes with any of these three in such a way as to totally prevent any type of long-term completion (months-years) then it is no longer relative. Most people with chronic pain will invariably experience pain doing any of these things. For our immediate goals, though,  that doesn’t matter. What matters is if they can do them. I realize there will be objections to this type of reasoning; most people could complete these things. I could even do these things right now, although it would cause me intractable pain. Its important to remember that these acts aredaily; that is, they require completion on a long-term scale. Yes, I could complete them today, but  I can tell you right now, if I did them all at once now, I sure as hell wouldn’t be able to do them tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that. Its in that area that pain sheds its relative skin and reveals its true, disabling self. When completing daily acts of living requires one day means they cannot be completed the next, or for a duration after. When a person finds they cannot do these basic things daily, on a normal time-scale, then their pain must no longer be considered relative and transient, and defined by others through comparison of their own levels of pain.

Because pain is such a subjective experience, people erroneously conclude that its effects are subjective too; maybe they broke their arm once but still managed to hold a summer job, concluding that all people who experience ‘broken-arm-like-things’ should still manage to fulfil their responsibilities. In order for those of us experiencing chronic, daily, disabling pain to gain some level of respect, pain needs to be assessed by virtue of its applied nature; that is, by how much it limits a person in how they can apply themselves. We need to leave the suffering out, that’s not something that can be objectively measured… yet. Its something that requires empathy, and the only way to truly feel empathetic is to have experienced the same thing as the person you’re attempting to empathize with. If we conflate suffering and disability, were doomed to an endlessly recursive cycle of defining ourselves against the backdrop of others’. That just doesn’t work out well for anyone.

“Man is doomed to eternally vacillate between the two extremes of boredom and distress”
-Schopenhauer
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2 thoughts on “Suffering: Is It All Relative?

  1. I’ve got a “for-instance” for you.

    I am able to work a 9 hour shift, five days a week. Because of the pain I’m in from working, I am unable to cook, clean, do dishes, or much of anything other than taking care of my most basic functions like going to the bathroom unassisted, and usually throwing something on some bread to eat (unless I’m too nauseous from pain to even consider food). Because of this, many people think I’m just lazy when it comes to housework, because I’m “well enough to work” and that means I’m obviously “well enough to do housework.”

    • People are Ignorant. Its as simple as that. Anyone with EDS, no matter how mild deals with disabling pain. EDS is specific to each individual. The objective evaluation of suffering is put in place to keep away those who would interpret their success as a sign of internal strength and evaluate others weaknesses as an internal flaw (the fundamental attributional error). This is a big, big topic. Evidently I should do another blog! You have probably been in contact with people like this, people who you would just love to slap in the face or trade places for a day to show them real pain: the people who are barely in pain, barely injured and disabled, but who interpret this as an internal strength unique to them; or they say ‘oh well I have a high pain tolerance’… soo annoying (Stanford researchers are working on a device that will objectively measure pain). This is a philosophical attempt to say ‘all things being equal’… now lets evaluate the data.

      When I was able to work like you were, I took it for granted. I’m not sure how to convey the importance of really enjoying each day. I have another blog post about things I’ve learned from the chronically ill; I may articulate this point better. I’ll be writing another blog on ‘pain’s you shouldn’t ignore’ and ‘meeting your medical solvency’, too. Just be happy and try and be healthy. Fuck what anyone else says. They’re ignorant and blind.

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