Thursday, October 05, 2006

The Purpose of Pain

One of the story lines tonight on Grey's Anatomy was about a young girl who had a rare condition where her body did not feel pain. She was constantly getting cuts and bruises and had even stapled one cut closed by herself to avoid a trip to the emergency room. She convinced herself that she had super powers and consequently subjected herself to an increasing amount of physical abuse that resulted in internal bleeding and threatened her life.

One of the lines of dialogue was that "pain is there to keep us from harming ourselves". Pain serves a couple of purposes. In the physical sense, one of the purposes of pain is to protect us, to keep us from injury, to warn us that continuing to do whatever is causing us to feel pain will bring us some sort of harm. A second purpose is to notify us or remind us that we are injured and in need of healing. In sports we often admire someone who can play through pain, even though it often turns out to be to our detriment. (Speaking from personal experience here, as exemplified by my recent knee surgery.)

One of the ironies is that the healing process can also be painful. A popular phrase among athletes who are training and trying to become stronger is "no pain, no gain." It can be difficult to distinguish sometimes between the pain that comes from growth and the pain that comes from injury. It's also ironic that we often embrace the pain that signals harm and avoid the pain that results from growth. One of the euphemisms we use for someone who has had too much to drink is that "he is feeling no pain".

Pain is not necessarily something to seek to avoid, but it is something that we should listen to, whether it is warning us or reminding us that we need healing.

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