I had a great full-fledged plan to visit India. I was to live in a pleasant club, meet old and new friends, attend a college reunion and have a fine time. Two weeks before my flight, the retina in my right eye came apart. The world darkened along with my vision.
After three grueling months, just as I exulted over my recovered sight, I collapsed in pain. Excruciating pain, it turned out, caused by two oversize stones in my kidney. I had to have what surgeons modestly call procedures, four of them, three under general anesthesia.
In both cases, the affliction, unpleasant as it was, was trivial compared to the agony of the cure.
I have forbidden myself to write of these experiences. Few like to read of others’ pain. I believe most people would rather stay away from it. As for the medical response, that is another dismal story, better devoted to another place, another time.
I feel tempted, however, to talk about something interesting I discovered, quite by accident, in this murky period.
I cannot recall a period in my life when I did not have pain. As a child I fell as I ran and hurt myself. As an adolescent I hurt myself playing soccer. Of course, I did not stop running or playing soccer. Sometimes the pain lasted, and I felt it as I ran, played or did anything else. What helped me to go on was the observation that I wasn’t the only one to be hurt. Others fell too, had abrasions and cuts, flinched as caustic medicine was put on the wound, but in a day or two returned to join the game. Why did we all do it?
However young and naïve, we saw the connection very quickly. Pain is the price for any kind of fun. If you climbed a tree, you fell sometimes. If you raced your friends, you tripped and hit the dust occasionally. If you ran furiously to outstrip your opponents and score a goal at close range, you could slip and hit the goal post and nurse the agony for a week. Whatever I enjoyed doing, entailed the risk of aches and anguish. If I wanted to avoid all pain, I had to sit at home and avoid all of life.
One more thing. Every time I hurt myself, my friends, even those I didn’t consider close friends, came running to help. They showed concern, escorted me home and came to see me if I did not turn up to play. I loved it and wondered what created that special link. They knew and felt keenly what had happened to me because it had happened to them – or to their brother or a close friend. By getting hurt, I was joining the grand army of those who had suffered pain and become part of the ‘band of brothers’ who shared a common experience.
Pain is the great leveler, the power nexus that joins us human beings. You can be a captain of industry or a mere clerk, a renowned surgeon or his bullied nurse-in-training, a powerful and eloquent politician or his humble driver, but you are all vulnerable to pain. A sudden, stinging pain can bring you down from your pinnacle of glory or raise you from your trough of insignificance and join you to the league of human beings linked by the invisible chain of pain.
I do not believe in the absurdly heroic idea that whatever does not kill you makes you stronger. Nor do I accept the cruel theological notion that God sends you some horrific forms of pain to purify your soul. CS Lewis wrote of suffering as a divine megaphone, to make us hark to virtuous counsel. If some deity has to break one’s bones or gnaw one’s organs to induce piety, then almighty he might be but all-merciful he is certainly not.
Pain is not just unpleasant but evil. Medical science, seldom at the forefront of human thought, has now come around to the idea that pain, even for a cure, must be reduced for the long-term wellbeing of patients. It is good that pharmaceutical ingenuity is now keen to help humans lower their load of pain.
As I lay in hospital beds, looking at the prostate men and women around me and hearing their piteous voices, I had a new awareness of the human destiny. We must live, we must act, we must enjoy; and we must sometimes pay the price of some pain. As we twinge and writhe in suffering, we are also forging our link with the rest of the human race. In all our pride and foolishness, that is one morsel of truth we must cling to.