I think it was Marcel Proust who once wrote that we can only be healed from suffering only when we experience it completely. It’s hard to understand that, when we live in a world that has all but eliminated pain. There’s a pill for just about every kind of affliction, and an anaesthetic for every surgical procedure. It may not be a pain-free world we live in, but there’s always a guarantee of relief. We are no longer bound by pain, but we are free from it. Pain merely becomes an option in our lives.
The images of despair, grief, and torment that comes with everything from pricking to paroxysm find relief in small little pills. In the same way that the light bulb changed day and night, the painkiller changed that intimate connection of mind and body called pain. At its most extreme, we have successfully alienated it from ourselves. We no longer “suffer:” we merely manage pain, control it. Or alleviate symptoms. The experience of pain violates the morals of reason, joy, and pleasure. It is taboo to suffer in a world that is somehow, in some way, governed by doses of over-the-counter analgesics. Or, at its extreme, vials of anaesthesia.
We speak of “revolutions” a lot, but there’s no human invention that has ever changed life in its entirety – from the mind, the body, the heart, and the soul – more than the painkiller. Our world is dependent on it: work can stop with a migraine, so we pop a pill. We want the most convenient way to extract teeth, so we developed lidocaine. The easiest and smoothest road to addiction are not the hard drugs glorified in movies, but the blisters and bottles we keep around the house to keep ourselves from experiencing a regular physiological function. A normal human reaction.
We speak of “desensitization” a lot, but even our painkiller-fortified bodies cannot stand suffering. Or worse, we cannot understand suffering. And while our bodily pains are relieved by painkillers we start searching for things immune to it. Or worse, create things that are beyond the doses of painkillers. Things like war, heartbreak, fear, hunger: things that are beyond the sensibilities of humanity. We’ve become out of touch with pain that we create it, and try to drown it with the painkillers we’ve grown dependent on. Care packages filled with aspirin, overdosing on drugs in the event of heartbreak, a paracetamol to curb the anxiety of day-to-day living. Or just plain not caring at all for the welfare of those suffering around us. It hurts to see people suffer, and we haven’t developed a painkiller for that yet.
And so we watch the extremes of suffering unfold before us; and for our own suffering, ibuprofen will do. Or apathy and indifference: society’s best painkillers. I don’t want to think that we’re all but desensitized, but somehow I’m wont to believe that those who suffer are closer to being human than those who pop a pill.