The Agility of Suffering.

So, it’s almost September and time to get writing again. I haven’t been particularly active over the summer, but now I’m working up to a regular schedule of reading and writing.

It’s been an interesting summer, hot and dry with heavy smoke in the air at times. Wildfires still burn on the north end of Vancouver Island. And there’s been pain. Lots of it for Carolyn with her appendectomy and arthritis and me, well I suffer from chronic pain. I’m now seeing an amazing physiotherapist and it could be, it just could be, that I will find some relief from the pain that has plagued me for years around my shoulders, back and neck. I don’t believe there’s much that can be done about the pain that I still suffer from around the sites of past surgeries, one that removed a kidney and another on my lower back. I can deal with all the pain although it does make me cranky from time to time as Carolyn can attest, and it can drain me of energy.

I recently wrote about pain in this blog. I focussed specifically on the invisibility of pain and the fact that an individual’s pain is always assumed rather than demonstrated empirically. That is to say that if you break your leg in a biking accident, the medical professionals can easily ascertain the reality of the fracture, but the pain you would surely feel would not be evident, nor clearly measurable. When I got my left kidney removed in 2002 to excise kidney cell cancer, the general assumption was that I would have some pain. That assumption was correct and I was dosed with morphine to try to mitigate the pain. It worked, but years later I still feel the need now and again to take a T3, or Tylenol with codeine for the pain. The pain in my side from the surgery is still very real although the experts at the pain clinic at the Nanaimo General Hospital’s Pain Clinic were convinced when I was a patient there a few years ago that the pain comes from my brain and not from my side.

The pain your doctor acknowledges you must be feeling after surgery or a broken leg can only be measured subjectively, on a scale of 1 to 10, say. Some people, one in a million according to a couple of websites I consulted, cannot feel pain and their lives are extremely hazardous because of it.  Apparently, we need pain. It warns us of underlying problems and issues. It urges us to seek relief and balance.

Without any hard evidence, I hypothesize that people experience pain idiosyncratically. That is, some of us may be highly sensitive to pain while some of us are more or less inured to it. That goes for physical as well as psychic pain. In my next post, I want to address the issue of the amount of social, individual and economic resources that go into pain detection, management, and alleviation.

In this post I want to move away from pain somewhat to consider suffering. Suffering, although most people can agree on a general definition of it as generalized and sustained pain, has been vilified as a great social evil or hailed as the way to eternal life, in fact, the only way to eternal life. In a short blog post I cannot begin to summarize the importance that the concept of suffering has had (and still has) in human history. It is a concept that infuses so much of our existence and our attention. And it’s used in so many ways, hence its agility.

According to Friedrich Nietzsche, “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.” It’s worth dwelling on this quote for a bit. What does it mean “to live is to suffer”?

Well, I surmise that it may have to do with how we define suffering as essentially being unable or unwilling to change something. If I say, “I don’t suffer fools gladly”, that means that I won’t put up with their crap. Most people suffer fools silently as is sufficiently demonstrated in the U.S. at the moment. I suffer pain, but some people suffer loneliness (or the inability to form meaningful relationships with other people). Some suffer success (or the inability to accept the fact that they stand out). Some suffer fame (of the inability to accept the attention paid to them by larger numbers of people). To ‘put up with’ pain means to suffer pain. To suffer means to be blocked, to be unable to move to change or alleviate distress or pain, to lose control. To suffer means to be unable to accept life and death.

Shakespeare has Hamlet say in a famous soliloquy: “Is it nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing, end them?” Hamlet must answer this question for himself. Should he silently put up with disloyalty and nastiness in the family or stand up and fight? Neither option is great, but Shakespeare’s meaning is clear.

So, how does this relate to Nietzsche’s aphorism? The way I read it, Nietzsche is saying that life is a process of helplessly awaiting death. Shakespeare gives Hamlet a choice between two paths. Life doesn’t do that for us. There is only one possible outcome when we are born. We suffer in waiting for our final breath. We can do nothing about it. We are helpless in the face of it. That is a basic definition of suffering. Of course, us humans with our big brains were not going to accept that fate, so we invented a myriad of cultural ways of denying death, of convincing ourselves that for us, death doesn’t exist.[1] Baptism is one ritual specifically designed to thwart death. Baptism, for believers, welcomes the initiate into a possible eternal life.

One of the more deleterious consequences of this obsession with denying death is the conclusion that any one group’s death denying immortality projects must be exclusive. Simply put, if my immortality project promises me eternal life, then yours must be a lie and must be defeated to prove it. A vivid example of this is congruent with colonialism. Christian missionaries who accompanied European traders, explorers and exploiters in the early history of the global spread of capitalist production considered it their duty to extinguish indigenous belief systems, forcing locals to adopt Christianity or face extermination. To a large extent, they succeeded although vestiges of indigenous immortality projects have survived to this day and are sometimes rallying points for indigenous cultural, social and economic revival.

For religious folk, suffering is a big deal. Christians and Jews are intimately familiar with suffering having been condemned to it in this mortal coil because of the follies in the Garden of Eden. In contrast, suffering is endemic to life as Thomas Hobbes maintained just because it is, history proves it. Jordan Peterson, a contemporary pop philosopher not remotely in Hobbes’ league, also finds that suffering is the essence of life as is brutality. He is not ‘religious’ himself, but he does support the religious view that suffering is essential. For Peterson, it is an indispensable element of human psychological growth.

It would be ridiculous to suggest that suffering is not an essential part of human and other sentient life. However, unless we agree to dwell on one end of the continuum of human suffering and human bliss, or accept the idea that life is itself suffering, we must accept that suffering is always contingent, conditional and situational. Life is not endless suffering for everyone. We are capable of moments of glee, pain free activity, both physical and psychic (or mental). Yes, we live and we die, but acceptance of that fact can alleviate much suffering.

Many religious folks, not just Christians by any stretch of the imagination, are focussed on arriving at that acceptance by denying earthly death. They defy their helplessness before death by handing over control over their lives to whatever god or deity they chose to create for themselves. Not all of us share in that type of denial. Those of us who are irreligious have to accept the fact of biological death like we accept the fact of biological life because, in fact, they depend on each other. Life cannot exist without death.

So, suffer away folks. As I write earlier in this blog post, I suffer from chronic pain. I’d like it to go away, but it’s not likely to happen. That means I have a choice to make, just like the choice Shakespeare gave to Hamlet. I can either suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or fight on until there is no more fight left in this old body of mine. I’m not particularly good at suffering slings and arrows, so I guess I only have one option left. That really simplifies life.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] For a thorough analysis of death denial there is no better source in my mind than Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death, available on Amazon or better still, order it from your local bookstore.

The Conundrum of Pain…and Suffering: Part 1.

I’ve been thinking about writing this piece for a long time. It’s only now that I figured out how I wanted to organize my narrative. It’s complicated because there are so many aspects and approaches to both pain and suffering. The medical profession (and the medical ‘industry’) has its clear claim on the alleviation of pain and suffering. Philosophers and psychologists have also long been interested in the topic. Sociologists too. I won’t be quoting any sources this time. I will leave that for subsequent posts where I deal with specific scholarly and popular approaches to pain and suffering. To start, I want to suggest why I find pain and suffering of interesting.

Pain is not something that can be empirically determined. It cannot be objectively measured as far as I know. If you know otherwise, please let me know. That’s why doctors (MDs, that is) sometimes ask you: “On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad is your pain right now?” You answer: “Gee, I don’t know.” And you just throw out a number because it’s such a hard question to answer. You don’t want to say 2 because then what the hell are they doing in their office? You don’t want to say 10 unless you’re writhing in pain on the floor by the examination table. A 7 is usually good for attracting attention without getting ‘the look’. Still, your doctor may be wary.

You can look at anyone, I don’t care whether they have just been badly damaged in a car crash, they have arthritis, psoriasis, lumbago (don’t you just love that word?), and/or gout. You can impute that they’re in pain, but it’s not visible. Pain is not visible. You cannot see pain. It hides in the crevices, nooks and crannies of your body but nobody can see it so how do we know it’s really there? We may see a person with a massive slashing knife wound to the chest and we assume that person is in pain, but we never see the pain so we don’t have any way of determining its intensity or how much shock or other factors have mitigated or attenuated it.

Recently we (Carolyn and I) spent some time in a hospital emergency department because Carolyn needed an emergency appendectomy. All is much better now, but it was obvious that the medical staff were at a loss the first time we went to emerg (that’s what they call it, you know) to figure out what the cause of Carolyn’s pain might be. They may have even wondered whether or not her pain was psychosomatic. They poked and prodded her, took blood and did a CT scan. Nothing of significance was found. I don’t know what the staff thought at the time. They told her she was a conundrum and looked great on paper. In any case, we were sent home with instructions to take antibiotics, pain killers, etc. When over the next few days the pain got worse for Carolyn we went back to emerg after Carolyn was told by her family doctor that she had a classic case of appendicitis. After a few more hours sitting in waiting rooms and getting more tests including a second CT scan, it was determined that indeed, Carolyn had acute appendicitis (which we subsequently found out was evident on the first CT scan). Time for surgery for a ruptured appendix. This entire scenario was upsetting and did not need to happen. Surgery after our first visit would have been routine and we probably would have come home the same night. As it stood, Carolyn spent two days in the hospital recovering. Now, this was all nasty and everything, but I have questions about the presence of pain as Carolyn described it and the CT scan that showed an inflamed appendix. Did they operate because of the pain or because of the CT scan? The CT scan confirmed that there was an organic problem and the assumption that Carolyn was in pain may or may not have factored into the decision to operate. I’m not sure how that works.

Pain is not something that is determined objectively so how are medical personnel to know whether a person is in pain or is faking it? There are people out there who crave attention and will fake medical symptoms to get it. There are people who have what’s called indeterminate illnesses or diseases of indeterminate etiology like fibromyalgia. Some medical doctors and others associated with medicine still don’t believe that fibromyalgia is a thing. They argue that if only you’d relax, your pain would go away…that’s if you ever really had pain…wink, wink, nudge, nudge. It’s a tough call because pain is not visible. People may be grimacing and walking abnormally, and we assume they’re in pain, but we just don’t know for sure. There is probably more attention given to determining the etiology of pain in regular and emergency medicine than anything else. Guesswork has to play a major role along with targeted questioning. “Does it hurt here? No. Here? No. Then what about here? Okay, here then! Well then, we’ll just peel you off the ceiling now and figure out what to do for you. You will definitely need some painkilling meds. Get that IV hooked up. It’s certainly true that pain alone cannot trigger surgery. Just because I tell a doctor I’m in pain, that doesn’t justify her throwing me straight into the operating room. Subjective reports of pain must be supported by evidence of organic abnormality, or is it the other way around?

Killing pain is huge business. We don’t seem to like pain a lot unless we have a personality disorder and we’re masochistic. Big Pharma’s bread and butter is in killing pain. Opioids are huge business. They are used medically to mitigate physical pain symptoms, but they are also used on the street to deal with ‘psychic’ pain. [This is a topic for another blog post.]

Strangely enough, we often put ourselves through a lot of pain and suffering to accomplish a task that we’ve imposed on ourselves like running a marathon. Why run a marathon only to feel intense pain during and afterwards? What drives us to doing this kind of thing? [This is a topic for yet another blog post.]

Then, there are people, a very small minority, who cannot feel physical pain at all. They can put their hand on a hot stove element and not know that they are in trouble until they smell flesh burning. That’s not a scenario that appeals to me at all. In view of this it’s common to consider that pain has benefits in an evolutionary sense. It’s probably a damn good thing that we do feel pain. Too bad our pain is not obvious to others in an objective way. It would make life a lot less painful for a lot of us.

Private Property on Reserves in Canada: 5 myths.

While I’m gestating my next blog post, I thought I’d post this excelled article from the Star in 2012. There is so much misunderstand, prejudice and discrimination even among mostly reasonable people with regards to indigenous and First Nations people in Canada that anything that can be done to dispel myths about them is good by me. This article falls under that category. Click on the link below for the full Star article by CHRISTOPHER ALCANTARA.

https://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorialopinion/2012/08/19/private_property_on_reserves_5_myths.html

 

Some thoughts on comfort and ease.

So, I’ve been reading a lot lately and Carolyn has just been through an emergency appendectomy. Not that the two things are related. I don’t think my reading has brought on Carolyn’s appendix woes, but her woes are real and are making her very uncomfortable and in disEASE.  I often read in bed. I’ll go to bed around 9 in the evening or so and read for a couple of hours, if my brain will let me. I sometimes wake up with my head in my book, drooling. It’s 2 in the morning and my reading light is still on. At that point I make the sensible decision to shut the light, put my book away and snuggle into my blankets with the hope of a good sleep. It doesn’t always end up that way, but sometimes it does.

I like my bed. It’s comfortable. It never disappoints me. It’s a steady friend unless the surgery I had 50 years ago on my lower back decides it’s time to mess with me and I toss and turn just hoping to find a position that will allow me to drift off to sleep. Well, if my back co-operates my wrecked rotator cuffs sometimes take up the challenge of keeping me awake. They’re often quite successful. In fact they’re always successful. My arms and hands go numb, tingle and hurt like hell. Damn. That’s when I give up and take a T3 (that’s Tylenol with codeine). Now, I know that’s a narcotic, but, damn it, at least after I take it I get some sleep. Problem is when I wake up in the morning I have the equivalent of a hangover and it takes a while for my arms to respond reasonably to a little movement without making me nauseous. It’s distinctly unpleasant but a T3 eases my pain, dammit!  I find it hard to admit that a narcotic can give me comfort, but there you have it. It just does. I have a bigger, tougher, narcotic, hydromorphone that I can always use when I get into dire pain straights. That hasn’t happened in a long time and that’s a good thing because I don’t want to feel stoned all the time. I can’t get anything done when I’m ripped and I thrive on getting things done. Still, I know that if I need them, I have the little white pills. It’s a comfort to know that they will be there to ease my pain if I need them. They never fail me.

So, I think that comfort and ease for me reside in the familiar, the predictable, the physically pleasant sensation of benign homeostasis. I like that. Business has long realized that people seem to seek comfort and ease so we are constantly bombarded with ads trying to sell us products that are designed to make us more comfortable or to make life easier for us. The big luxury car with all the automatic gadgets you can conceive of at our fingertips makes life easier, doesn’t it? The automatic dishwasher, the coffee maker, the vacuum cleaner, the tons of shop tools I have, they’re all designed to make life easier for me and thus bring me more comfort.

We love comfort and ease when we travel too. Some people pay a lot of extra money to fly first class. Well, there are the prestige and showoffy aspects to that, but comfort and ease are a huge draw too. Ah, room to stretch out, lots of leg room, complimentary drinks. Sometimes our travel destination is a tropical island. We long to lay on the beach in comfort baking our bodies to a darker shade of white (depending where you are on the spectrum to start with). We love luxury hotels too because they’re so comfortable and people do everything for us.

So, I hope I’ve sort of established that we love comfort and ease in our lives. The problem is, that comfort and ease are certainly not the only goals to which we aspire. In fact, discomfort and pain can just as easily attract us. We are such fickle beings. Take golf for example. I don’t play the game because I don’t want to endanger people’s lives in the vicinity of the golf course. If I hit a ball, I have no idea where it’s going to go. But why bother in the first place? I would play golf if I were allowed to carry the ball around and drop it into the holes as I walk the course. Perfect score every time! Doesn’t that make much more sense? It would be a lot easier. Well, of course, it doesn’t make more sense. No challenge in that! No chance of experiencing the pain of defeat! But no chance either of being a sub-par hero. So, no, we don’t always seek comfort and ease. If we did, we would never climb mountains nor would we compete in any sport or game. As a species we seem to need a good measure of both comfort and discomfort, ease and unease. Marketing firms are masters at finding under what circumstances we seek comfort or discomfort. Sometimes both values are pitched in a single ad.

Now, my point. It seems like a truism to suggest that homeless people are also drug addicts and lazy slugs. I don’t have the statistics in front of me, but just by simple observation it strikes me that most people feel that the poor, but especially the homeless, are hopeless addicts and moral degenerates. I just want to suggest to you that if I were homeless, I would try to find some way to find a reasonable balance between comfort and discomfort, ease and unease. That’s just what we all seem to want. However, because my options as a homeless person would be so limited, the only way I could experience even a few moments of comfort and ease is by getting as stoned as I could. Passing out would be a blessing.

If I were homeless, I’d be wrecked as often and as completely as I could be. Good thing I’m retired with a decent pension. This way I can stay reasonably clear headed although I won’t turn down a good single malt scotch if it’s offered to me. If nothing else it helps with the pain!

Homelessness has deep roots in economic, social and psychological dimensions. However, if we are to do anything about homelessness as some of us are keen to, we have to set up our world to provide people a reasonable shot at achieving a balance between comfort and discomfort without them resorting to consuming excessive amounts of alcohol or drugs to get there. For a homeless person, it’s reasonable and rational to get as drunk or as stoned as possible. It always amazes me that no where near the number of homeless people resort to booze and drugs as some people think. Part of the reason, methinks, is because people create community on the street. There is comfort in community. Community is an antidote to drug and alcohol abuse for the homeless and a piece of the road to balance between comfort and discomfort for the rest of us.

An early 20th Century sociologist made the same argument as I have in this post only using different analogies and a different focus. I’ll write about his work soon in another post.

 

No Post. No Cry.

I’m tired. I’ve done a lot of reading and writing in the first six months of this year and I’ve done some paintings and other kinds of art work for an auction or just because I wanted to. I’ve also spent time with my family and carry on with my volunteer work with various local non-profit societies. So, I haven’t published anything on this blog lately and I’m not apologizing for that. I haven’t been idle but nor have I felt compelled to write more words here, particularly after the blitz of writing on misogyny I carried on in the past few months.

I’ve been reading some work by Jordan Peterson and have written some commentary, but it sits unfinished. My verdict on Peterson is still out. He obviously is a guru to some and an evil misogynist to others. I can’t deny either view of him. I can, however, challenge him on his shallow analysis of people like Karl Marx, his straw man and ad hominem attacks. Peterson seems to know very little about Marx beyond textbook treatment of him yet is quite prepared to be highly critical of the man.

I’m reading a 2016 biography of Karl Marx by Gareth Stedman Jones at the moment. It’s quite good, not without its flaws, of course,  but I won’t comment on it just yet. I’ll save my comments for after my book club has read it. Should be by the end of July, beginning of August. Like all historical figures, Marx was vilified and glorified without much justification in either case. Certainly, Marx was used. More later on that.

I’m feeling myself drawn back to my long standing interest in morality and its roots. After a bit of a break I’ll get back to writing about it again. One thing is certain, I feel very strongly that the way we live determines the way we think, what we think and our general value systems. I don’t mean this in an individualistic, but in a cultural sense. We aren’t generally aware or pay attention to these things any more than fish wonder about the nature of water. Criticism, meaning the practice of dissecting a perspective, an idea, a philosophy, etc., is not something we come by naturally. Criticism and science are kin. They involve the same process. They also are considered a threat to social solidarity for some. A lot of people don’t take kindly to too close a scrutiny of their values and ideas or of their favourite organizations like their country. Sorry, folks, but that’s what I’m all about.

Sleep now.

 

 

From the Times Literary Supplement

https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/grave-expectations-death/

Until death do us part. This is a great review of a subject most of us dread. The fear of death and dying and the obsessions that fear engenders often keep us from living life to the fullest. Are we programmed to fear death? Is it in our genes? It is a huge part of our culture.  Fully institutionalized death denial permeates deeply into our everyday lives whether we are religiously inclined or not.

Read on.

Mobile Phones for kids: Yes or No?

– with Carolyn Kirk-Albert

…if both parents have a mobile (cel) phone but there is no landline in the house, how are kids supposed to communicate with their friends?

Carolyn and I just happened upon this conversation 3 or 4 days ago. I don’t recall how we got to it, but as we got into it, we thought ‘I need to write about this.’ So, here I am and here we are.

The issue starts with the fact that there are fewer and fewer households in North America with a telephone landline. More and more people are using mobile smart phones as their prime mode of interpersonal communication. Carolyn and I have not had a landline in quite some time. It just seemed redundant to have 3 phones for 2 people. Besides, as this article from The Star (May, 2017) points out, landlines have become spam magnets or a honey trap for telemarketers. Towards the end of the time we had a landline, the only calls we got on it were from telemarketers or spam freaks. Giving up our landline did have consequences for our kids though. When they wanted to phone home, they had to decide which parent they would speak with. They still do. Sometimes they call me, sometimes they call their mom. It depends on the issue.

The situation is that landlines are losing ground to mobile phones as household communications devices. This article from the CRTC makes that argument. The evidence is clear. The article also points out, perhaps counterintuitively, that poorer households are more likely to use mobile phones exclusively. It’s a cost issue for them. For us too.

However, the issues we want to raise here are the consequences for the children in a household without a landline.  How does not having a landline affect their social lives? For us, when we were kids (yes there were phones back then) we could pick up the phone and call our friends. True, our parents might get upset at us for hogging the phone lines, especially in the days when there were still party lines (many households sharing a phone line), but if we were respectful and reasonable, our parents readily allowed up to talk to our friends, set up play dates, etc.

Now, if both parents have a mobile (cel) phone but there is no landline in the house, how are kids supposed to communicate with their friends other than face to face in the school yard? Logically, it can only happen with their parents as intermediaries. So, if little Beth wants to play with little Sammy, Beth’s mom or dad will have to phone Sammy’s parents to set up a play date. The kids may not be able to talk to each other except face to face.

So, when is it okay for kids to get their own mobile phones so that they can communicate with their friends directly? There is a cost involved. That’s a drawback. There’s also the issue of supervision. And, kids can lose their phones. (Adults can too, of course.) Understandably, parents want to know what their kids are up to. Still, the question stands. Aside from the cost and supervisory issues, when does it make sense for kids to get their own phones? The phones can be restricted to local calls only and online times can be monitored.

We don’t know. We’re grandparents. Our grandchildren are getting to that age, however, when they are getting interested in these issues. Maybe kids need to phone their friend’s parents’ mobile phones and ask the parent to pass the phone over. In a sense, that’s what we did as kids. Someone answered the phone and passed it over to whoever the call was for. Is that an issue? Are parents going to be into that: having THEIR phones taken over by their kids. I’m thinking that’s not likely.

I guess Carolyn and I just got to thinking about the social consequences for families of increasing exclusive use of mobile phones. There’s always some fallout, someone that’s left out. Mobile phones are the ideal individual communications device, but they don’t promote sharing or family. It seems to us that they further alienate us from each other and set the stage for our treatment more as individuals then as family members.

Just a thought. Your comments are always welcome whether you have kids or not.