Everything is fucked are probably the three truest words for someone living with chronic pain or illness. And that doesn’t changes, just the level of how fucked things are changes. The question is, does chronic pain offer a different philosophical outlook on the subject of pain and happiness?
Chronic pain compromises every area of a person’s life. Decisions are not made in the pursuit of happiness but in the minimization of pain. Pain engulfs identity, to the point that for some they define themselves exclusively in terms of disease, symptoms and treatment.
Pain becomes the universal constant. I have a coffee, I’m in pain. I walk to work, I’m in pain. I make love to my boyfriend and I’m in pain. Pain is never normalized, it can be escaped momentarily through sleep, pain killers, and the distraction of TV, meditation or creative pursuits but as soon as you return to your body and consciousness – your old friend Pain shows up waving its hand, saying, “I’m still here.” Pain is the daily-lived experience.
When I was first diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, I had a Pollyanna outlook: I’d read Louise Hay’s You can heal your life, I had a friend who’d healed herself of bowel cancer through Reiki and I saw a naturopath who made me promise not to take pain killers or prescription drugs as if they were cocaine and were going to fuck my shit up. So for eighteen months, I didn’t take any pain medication. My mantra was: Pain is my teacher, I will not avoid it or lessen it. I will learn the lesson it’s here to teach me. I admit it, I was a total hippie and I believed that I was responsible for my pain and by changing the way I thought I could change my experience. It was ego and it kept me in locked in a prison of daily pain and suffering.
I did less. My yoga practice vanished and with it a dream of doing my yoga teacher training. My vibrant social life and friendship circles diminished as I kept breaking plans due to pain until I was down to one social occasion a weekend. I gave up my PhD in writing and wrote less. Before this, I would have defined myself as a yogi, a good friend, a writer amongst other things and it felt like pain was stealing these elements of who I was away from me. It took awhile, to realize it also offered me a freedom because being able to do less was to choose quality and realize how ‘busy’ I’d unnecessarily made my life. A sense of self-sufficiency and stronger connection to myself without activity emerged however there was still shitloads of pain everyday.
It took eighteen months for pain to erode these beliefs and I went to see an integrative GP who gave me a prescription for painkillers. I had it filled, ignoring my hippie inner voice and I had my first pain free sleep in over eighteen months. Some may see this, as the avoidance of pain but it’s more complex that that for people with chronic pain. It’s not avoidance, but acceptance. When every breath causes pain, when yoga makes you take the next day off work sick, when every movement hurts – you need to minimize the pain by any means necessary. It’s not about the pursuit of happiness, pleasure, desire or self-satisfaction – the choices are about decreasing the pain so you can merely function and be able to exist.
For someone in great health, who has worked to have a high level of vitality and fitness it can be really easy to judge or blame the person with chronic pain for their poor health. You just need to be a raw vegan, don’t eat gluten, exercise more, you need to be more active – I’ve had all these solutions thrown at me over the years. Some people want to apply the same formula of their good health onto you, so you’re fixed. Everyone wants your disease or disorder to go away – healthy is the norm. To say, “This is me for life – broken and diseased” can make people extremely uncomfortable. They quietly exit your life as if you have leprosy and it’s contagious. People, in general, don’t want to catch pain.
In Everything is F*cked, Manson argues against the pursuit of happiness stating it ‘plunges us head-first toward nihilism and frivolity. It leads us toward childishness, an incessant and intolerant desire for something more, a hole that can never be filled, a thirst that can never be quenched. It is at the root of corruption and addiction, of self-pity and self-destruction.’ (p. 191). Instead, Manson urges us to pursue pain. The danger of this pursuit is pain’s ability to engulf a person, to eradicate their identity until they can only define themselves through their pain.
There are just as many psychologists, philosophers and educators who argue for the pursuit of happiness, and often want to carve out pain and negativity or the ‘negativity bias’ as Dr. Rick Hanson says. Prescribing the pursuit of pain or happiness creates a binary system discrediting the value in the other but chronic pain sits in a third philosophical space, pain makes it hard to pursue anything.
This is the liminal space where chronic illness can ask a different question. What if instead of pursuing pain or happiness, life is meaningful and there is nothing to pursue? Instead, we just need to become aware and conscious. Pain doesn’t make life meaningful and happiness doesn’t make life meaningful. We make life meaningful. How we choose to see it and how we live our lives.
Buddhism teaches us not happiness nor pain is the root of all suffering, but attachment. True freedom is not to be attached to what you experience – whether it be pain, happiness or any other emotion or materialistic possession. It’s our attachment to things or emotions that link to our suffering, which is different from pain. Suffering is what prevents us from feeling positive emotions and connections to that something-more in the universe.
Pain may limit the way I exercise, the amount of socializing I’m able to do, my romantic life and my career but it does not limit my impact on the world and on others, which is how I make my life meaningful. Chronic pain is teaching me to let go of my desire to be happy and my desire not to be in pain. It teaches me the power of being present, connected and detached. Everything might be fucked and that’s okay because we’re not fucked. We can still be kind, open-hearted, conscious, loving human beings. Who we are, what we do and how we do it is what makes life meaningful, not being happy or being in pain. And we don’t need to pursue a meaningful life; we are already making meaning everyday. We just need to be aware of the meaning we are making.