Sometimes Feeling Pain Is Necessary

By | December 27, 2017 | 2 Comments

We often assume that pain is unnecessary and to be avoided whenever possible. But is experiencing pain always harmful? Is causing pain always wrong?

The 1976 film “Marathon Man,” one of my all-time favorites, tells the story of an old Nazi, played by Laurence Olivier, who tries to extract (literally) information from a young student, played by Dustin Hoffman. It seems that the Nazi is a dentist who tortures his victims by drilling into a healthy tooth. But Hoffman escapes, soothing the pain of his tooth with oil of cloves.

Near the end of the film, Hoffman arms himself and prepares to confront his torturers. He applies the oil of cloves one more time, looks at the bottle, then throws it away. I believe the character intends to re-experience the pain his enemies caused him ‒ and thus to be better able to deal with them as harshly as they deserve.

The character is fictional, but his action may be instructive. Sometimes intellect is an insufficient guide for our actions. Sometimes emotions are also required. Obviously this applies to the tender emotions like pity, but I believe it also applies to the harsher emotions ‒ specifically anger.

The Lord (or nature, if you prefer) did not give us only intellect, so we could deal with our problems with cold logic. Emotions are also essential parts of our being human. We are not robots, nor should we be.

Pain is unpleasant ‒ it’s supposed to be. But it is essential for us to remain alive. In medical school, I learned that certain conditions such as diabetes may impair the nerves that carry the sensation of pain, leaving the patients subject to scalding their feet in hot water without being aware of the injury until it is too late.

All animals require the ability to feel pain in order to avoid severe injuries. Yes, pain is unpleasant, but it is also an essential accompaniment of life. We need pain to tell us when injury is imminent. It is also necessary to remind us of what injured us in the past, so we can avoid it in the future. Pain is literally how we learn to avoid injury.

One would think that these ideas are obvious and generally accepted. One would be wrong.

A whole industry has grown up with the purpose of not just relieving pain ‒ which is admirable ‒ but also of preventing it altogether ‒ which is both dangerous and ultimately doomed to failure. A host of assorted gurus write books, make videos, and advise us how to avoid pain. Besides, lawyers and politicians tell us that if we experience pain, someone must be guilty ‒ someone from whom they will protect us or, better yet, extort money.

Plants live pain-free lives, at least as far as we know. But animals and humans must feel pain in order to live. They must be able to recognize harmful conditions before serious injury is done. They must be able to recall the pain in order to avoid those conditions in the future.

Dustin Hoffman’s character threw away the bottle containing the soothing pain‑reliever. He was then able to confront the Nazi and his henchmen in a successful gunfight. Let us follow his example. Let us throw away the bottles of soothing drugs that merely dull the senses and mask the underlying cause of the problem:

● Let us throw away the bottle labeled “Anger is wrong and destructive.” Of course this is often true, but not always. Anger at petty slights is destructive, especially in personal and family life. But anger at evil acts and at those who commit them can be constructive. Anger at child molesters can lead to stronger laws and safer children. Anger at terrorists who murder innocent people can lead to a world where it is again safe to go to the office or to visit a pizzeria.

● Let us throw away the bottle labeled “It is our duty to forgive.” It is our duty to forgive those who injured us and who ask forgiveness. It is not our duty, or even our right, to forgive those who injured others and who do not repent. This type of forgiveness is so cheap that it is utterly worthless. It merely makes us feel good, when in fact we have done nothing good.

● Let us throw away the bottle labeled “Violence never settles anything.” What about World War II? Violent criminals must be opposed with force ‒ nothing else will accomplish anything.

● Let us throw away the bottle labeled “Reasoning with people always works.” Reason works with reasonable people. But you can’t reason people out of something they weren’t reasoned into in the first place. Suicide bombers, mass murderers, and advocates of genocide are not subject to reason. If we can’t understand that, we are dangerous fools. Surely one should try reason first. But if violent attacks on innocent people persist, force must be used, or the violent criminals will inevitably prevail.

● Let us throw away the bottle labeled “Give peace a chance.” A chance to do what ‒ destroy more thousands of innocent lives? Is that “peace”? Or is it merely an excuse to stand aside idly while innocent blood is shed?

● Let us throw away the bottle labeled “Who are we to judge?” Of course we’re not perfect. No one is. But that doesn’t excuse us from our duty to judge right from wrong, and to oppose wrongdoers.

● Let us throw away the bottle labeled “Our country has its own problems.” Of course it does. But just because we can’t solve all problems everywhere, we are not excused from doing our best to solve the most acute problems. Again, this is merely an excuse to do nothing, while cloaking ourselves in the mantle of self-righteousness.

● Let us throw away the bottle labeled “Entertainment,” or at least use it more sparingly. It’s a really large bottle, filled with a vast assortment of raunchy comedies, bloody thrillers, improbable superheroes, endless interview shows filled with self-proclaimed victims, incessant sports programs, and video games of every conceivable description ‒ and some that are inconceivable. All these amusements occupy our time and numb our minds, but they accomplish little for us or anyone else. “Killing time” may not be a crime, but it does waste the most precious and irreplaceable thing we have.

Like the Dustin Hoffman character in “Marathon Man,” let us feel the pain that reminds us of wrongs done and wrongdoers still roaming free. Like the character in the film, we will then be better able to combat them with the necessary force.

The fight against evil is not a sprint or even a middle-distance event. It is truly a marathon. If we wish to be marathoners, we will need all the courage, endurance, and stamina we can muster. And if we feel ourselves fading in the stretch, we can force ourselves to re-experience the pain and remind ourselves of why we are in this struggle to the end.

And that might be a good New Year’s resolution.

If, like the Marathon Man, you want to remind yourself why we are in this fight, and if you have a strong stomach, click onto this image.

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