Monday 24 February 2014

WARNING: Life Without Pain Could Really Hurt You!

When was the last time you thanked God for a physical pain you felt?  If you're anything like me, your answer is probably never.  Headaches, sprained ankles, paper cuts, cold sores, stomach aches (not to mention childbirth, dislocated shoulders,  bullet wounds) - Is there really any reason to be thankful for such things?  My new answer is a resounding yes!

Allow me to explain.  For the past three years, my father-in-law has gifted me with a book for Christmas.  There seems to be no rhyme or reason to the selected topics - except that they are usually something I never would have picked up myself, and end up being one of the best books I've read that year.  His gift from this past year was no exception: "Pain: the Gift Nobody Wants (Warning: Life Without Pain Could Really Hurt You)".  (Now published under the title "The Gift of Pain: Why We Hurt and What We Can Do About It.")

It seemed sort of a funny selection, and you might be thinking that this is a strange topic to be reading a blog post about.  Do you even really want to learn to be thankful for pain?  Doesn't that sound a little crazy?  But truly, this is one of the most interesting books I've ever read, and I am quite sure it will have an impact on my thinking decades from now.

Dr. Paul Brand (the co-author with Philip Yancey), was born in the remote hills of India to missionary parents.  He studied medicine in England, and eventually took a position back in India as surgeon - where he inadvertantly found himself beginning on a path which made him one of the leading doctors and surgeons involved in working with leprosy patients - people whose handicaps come largely not as a direct result of their disease - but because they no longer feel pain.  It was this work which lead him to see what an essential ingredient pain is to our lives, and why he is often prompted to exclaim "Thank God for pain!".

The book is part memoir, part non-fiction.  Dr. Brand is a wonderful storyteller, and the episodes of his life growing up and later working in India, schooling in England, and later living in America are populated with unique and lovable people - both patients and colleagues - which make Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants an easy and invigorating(?) read.  He spends the second half of the book dealing with the issue of pain in a more topical format, and I'd be hard-pressed to tell you which part of the book I enjoyed more.  In this second half, he looks at aspects of the issue such as:

  • Pain as something that happens in the mind: "There is no simple direct relationship between the wound per se and the pain experienced.  The pain is in very large part determined by other factors, and of great importance here is the significance of the wound...In the wounded soldier the response to injury was relief, thankfulness at his escaping alive from the battlefield, even euphoria; to the civilian, his major surgery was a depressing calamitous event." (204)
  • Preparing for pain: "I had no way to measure the impact of community on the relief of pain, but I do know that in a land where pain-relieving drugs were in short supply and there was no universal health care, patients learned to depend on their families with confidence and trust.  I certainly saw more pain, but less fear of pain and suffering, in India than I have seen in the West.  In general, patients had less anxiety about the future."(236)
  • Managing pain: "After trying a host of methods, she decided that distraction was the best and cheapest weapon available.  She used to cancel activities when she felt pain, until she noticed that the only time she felt completely free of pain was during classroom hours when she taught English.  World recommends work, reading, humor, hobbies, pets, sports, volunteer work, or anything else that can divert the sufferer's mind from pain.  When pain strikes with fury in the middle of the night, World gets up, maps out the day ahead, works on a lecture, or completely plans a dinner party."(254)
  • What intensifies our pain: "The word hospital comes from the Latin for "guest", but in some modern hospitals 'victim' seems more apt.  Despite my medical background I felt helpless, inadequate, and passive.  I had the overwhelming impression of being reduced to a cog in a machine, and a malfunctioning cog at that.  Every sound filtering in from the hallway somehow related to my predicament. A rolling cart - they must be coming for me.  A groan from the hallway - Oh no, they've found something."(261)
  • Pleasure and it's relationship to pain: "I may risk sounding like an old man reminiscing about 'the good old days,' but nonetheless I suspect that affluence has made the modern industrialized West a more difficult place in which to experience pleasure.  This is a deep irony, because no society in history has succeeded so well in eliminating pain and exploiting leisure. ... 'Everywhere a greater joy is preceded by a greater suffering,' Augustine concluded"(291,300)
If you're looking for a book that's sure to be an interesting read for a friend, spouse, parent, book club, or yourself - look no further!  You might get a strange look when they first see the title, but it's likely they'll be raving about all they've learned shortly!

And that's why I now find some joy in pain!

You can see it on Amazon here.

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