How the Concept of Pain Has Changed Throughout History

And why you feel like an a-hole for complaining about it now.

Martyrdom of Saint Ciricus and his mother Juliitta represented in the Romanesque antependium (frontal altar), known as the Durro antependium, dated to the mid-12th century, originally from the Sant Quirc de Durro chapel in the Vall de Boí area in Alta Ribagorça in Catalonia, Spain, now on display in the National Art Museum of Catalonia in Barcelona, ​​Catalonia, Spain. Photo courtesy of the author… who will never un-see it and now you can’t either.

Churches in Europe are on a whole other level, man. And yet I’m somehow drawn to them like I was to the Cinnabon shop back at the mall in Tucson. There’s something irresistible about an over-opulent assault on the senses mixed with guilt and bodily hostility.

I can’t believe I pulled that comparison off.

See, since pain is, in many senses, invisible, and one of the only methods we have to measure it or express it to one another is language, I thought maybe if I couched this cringe-worthy topic within the folds of a delectable dessert, it might take the edge off.

Did it work or are you just hungry now?

Another way we humans have found to express pain is through depictions of the human body experiencing something undoubtedly painful. Since moving to Europe, I’ve noticed that the super-old churches here have that artform on lock. There are the many depictions of Jesus, of course, in various states of delirium and agony. Puncture wounds in all the usual places, vulnerable ribcage, tears and blood and sunken belly.

Then there’s Mary. She’s serene and accepting of visitors in the nativity scene because depictions of womanly birth pain were apparently never acceptable at any point in history, but her emotional anguish at cradling the head of her dead and tortured son in her lap is usually pretty palpable. And the juxtaposition of these two scenes gives us an extra dose of oof.

Then there are the martyrs. Beheaded, stabbed, boiled, crushed, you name it. There was no shortage of imagination when it came to torturing martyrs. In many depictions, they reach towards the heavens, already anticipating the end of their pain and the commencement of their eternal pleasure.

“I’m well done on this side. Turn me over.” -The reported last words of St. Lawrence as he’s being burned alive on a gridiron. St. Lawrence is the patron saint of cooks, chefs, and comedians. Notre-Dame Cathedral. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve written before about being curious where this religious reverence for pain came from. It’s a phenomenon that baffles me a little because my personal preference for a place of prayer and introspection would be to display the more serene, sensual aspects of existence. Some plants, maybe. Pretty lights. Nice smells. Comfy cushions. Books, even? Ok, well, now we’re just in a library.

Was prioritizing discomfort in churches a scare tactic? Was it an opportunity for the artists to depict some of their own trauma for lack of therapy? Was it an inspiration to congregants to see pain handled with grace? Was it a Buddhist-type acceptance that life is suffering?

Maybe all of those. But the theory I’m currently leaning towards is that it was helpful to see pain depicted as purposeful, at least more so than the way we feel about our own pain today, which is that it’s a shameful, random obstruction to everyday living, something to be handled and moved on from as soon as possible. Definitely not something worthy of contemplation.

This is literally the first episode of WandaVision BECAUSE SHE’S PUSHING ASIDE HER PAIN! That show is so good. Ladies’ Home Journal Aspirin Ad. 1937. Photo courtesy of genibee on Flikr.

When you go to school to learn how to write fiction (or screenwriting, as I did), you’re very likely to get notes on how to handle a protagonist’s physical pain. The main takeaway is — Don’t over-do it. Don’t over-describe it. Pain is boring. Nobody cares.

Unless it’s a metaphor.

Pain in fiction always has to do with something a character stands for, what their quest is. It has to serve as a barrier to what they want and reflect an internal battle. If you can make it serve a magical purpose, that’s the ultimate. Nobody likes random pain that gets in the way of every-day living. Bleh. Gross. Why? That’s real people stuff.

In real life, however, we have physical and emotional pain that doesn’t always make sense. Things happen to us that feel random and totally unrelated to the plot of our lives. Things like… Oh, I don’t know… Coming down with the Coronavirus and suddenly having chronic headaches that won’t go away.

Sure, in this specific example (which is not at all personal and definitely something I pulled out of my ass just now) there’s cultural relevance. We can all clearly see there’s a bigger story to be told about how governments aren’t taking responsibility for the health of their citizens. Or… something about space lasers and pedophile rings? Depends on who’s telling the story and how much pain they want to inflict on others, I guess.

But in my personal story — the story about the history-loving world traveler who just wants to write books and blog about statues and monuments— I’ve gotta say, this “chronic pain” plotline is starting to feel a bit overdone and over-described. I’ve been getting pretty bored of it. I haven’t cared to put it into context until now because I’d rather just cut it out entirely. Gimme that Bayer Asprin and let me get back to my life, please.

Patient — It hurts when I do this.

Doctor — So don’t do that.

We’ve done everything we can, as a society, to sweep our pain under the rug and strip it of all meaning.

Professor Joanna Bourke notes in her book, The Story of Pain, that medical texts used to be a lot more descriptive and metaphorical. The pained contortions of the face and body were once seen as helpful indicators for doctors to be able to tell where and how serious the issue was. It was encouraged for doctors to gaze into their patients’ eyes and “judge the disease by the index of the countenance”.

Physicians like Charles “Pain is the Safeguard of the Body” Bell believed that it was important to include detailed illustrations of maladies and surgical procedures in his texts, particularly ones that embraced the pinched, haunted, swooning, or tormented expressions of his subjects. Images like the one below probably gave the average person the heebie-jeebies even back then, but today, we might even scoff that it’s a tad …overdramatic, don’t you think?

“OMG, where’s my penis?!” Or… Opisthotonus in a patient suffering from tetanus. Painting by Sir Charles Bell. 1809

Humans are hardwired for empathy. We pick up even the subtlest cues in our environments. It’s tough to see even an illustration of someone being uncomfortable without feeling uncomfortable ourselves. To be honest, I don’t entirely blame doctors for needing to erect emotional barriers to protect themselves from the daily onslaught of oogy-vibes.

The problem is, over the years, those emotional barriers have taken the form of medical texts that erase the more descriptive language of pain and replace it with dry, clinical language and neutral, faceless imagery. The invention of anesthesia (arguably a fantastic invention) meant that surgeons could calmly and quietly do what needed to be done on a body without having to account for the patient’s panic and pained writhing. The rise of the pharmaceutical industry helped to further this detached attitude into the mainstream.

Pain became just a glitch in the mechanics of our systems, not a part of our personal stories, and certainly not worthy of too much of our attention. The opioid crisis and the resistance to publically-funded healthcare in the U.S. is proof that we’ve created a culture of impatience and indignity around our pain. In modern America, there’s no excuse for letting pain keep you from being productive. You tamp it down, you don’t bother anybody with it, you pop a pill, you make a joke, you move on.

We sometimes like to see ourselves as martyrs when it comes to our secret suffering but really, we’re just stuck in that moment of agony like the statues in the churches. Only without the relief that comes with a sense of purpose.

So how do we bring purpose back to our pain?

It’s funny. Pain can sometimes serve as a kind of fertilizer for life lessons when you stop to contemplate it. A seed my mom planted a long time ago has finally taken root.

When I was a kid, she slipped a disk in her spine and the surgery partially paralyzed her arms for a year. She’d been so close to becoming a doctor. Even having three kids under the age of 10 and a father with kidney failure hadn’t stopped her.

The pain did, though.

I got really used to the mentally checked-out look on her face when the pain was too much. It was a terrible time for her. I used to gently brush her hair while she fell asleep sitting upright on the couch. She’d say to herself over and over again, “My poor back. My poor back.” It must’ve felt like a punishment from God, to have put so much work into her goal, her quest, only to be thwarted right at the finish line.

Getting back to her residency was a journey. She barely had feeling in her fingers, but she had a hell of a lot of empathy for what her patients were going through. She did become a doctor. And not by ignoring her pain, but by embracing what it had to teach her. For the rest of her career, patients with chronic pain were drawn to her like moths to a flame because they could tell that this person knew pain at a level beyond the clinical texts.

“You’re either the villain, the victim, or the hero of your own life story.” She’d tell them. “Or not important enough to be mentioned. Which is it gonna be?”

  • As the villain, you hate yourself for complaining about your own pain when so many people have it way worse. You may blame yourself or see yourself as a bad person for letting it impede your productivity. You become the enemy of your own body, ignoring your pain to your own detriment.
  • As the victim, your pain is against you. You feel completely powerless, especially when it comes with a heavy cultural burden. Incompetent politicians, misinformation, greed, violence, dehumanization… it piles on.
  • As a side character, you see everyone else as the hero of their own life, but not yourself. You don’t want to inflict your pain on them. What’s most important is their comfort, their need to not have to think about your pain every day, even if you can’t escape it.
  • The hero is in tune with their own body. They’re confident about their abilities, limitations, and boundaries. The hero does the work to release themselves from the added emotional tension that surrounds their pain. Doing so, believe it or not, releases tension in the muscles and eases the pain (if only a little). The hero has figured out their metaphor. They’ve stopped saying, “My poor back”, and have started saying to themselves, “Aw, honey. What do you need?”

And then they cut themselves some slack if the answer is Cinnabon.

Just a palate cleanser. We’ve been talking about some heavy stuff. Photo courtesy of Mark Olsen on Unsplash

“Pain has been the means of increasing our knowledge, our skill, and our comforts. Look at the discoveries made in Science, in Botany, in Chemistry, in Anatomy; what a knowledge have we gained of the structure and the uses of plants while we were seeking some herb to soothe pain or cure disease! We have saught a drought to allay the burning thirst of a fever and we have found a dozen delicious beverages to drink for our pleasure or relief. We studied anatomy to find out the seat of disease, and how to attack it, and we found what we did not seek, a thousand wonderful works of God! A thousand most curious contrivances, most admirable delights! We found a model for the ribs of a ship. We found a pattern of a telescope in the eye. We found joints, and straps, and knittings, and valves which have been copied into the workshop of the mechanic and the study of the philosopher. Yes, we may thank our liability to pain for these — for if pain had not existed, who can tell whether these things would have been so soon, if at all, discovered?”

— Sharpe’s London Magazine: A Journal of Entertainment and Instruction for General Reading (Unknown Author) 1847.

I know the invention of ship ribs and coca-cola isn’t much consolation when the pain hits, but there’s something comforting in the implication of universality here. Your friends may be hiding their pain behind vacation photos, memes, and cute outfits, but history gets it. History remembers sitting with it.

The argument I’m making here is that maybe it’s time we sit our butts back down, in a pew or on a cushion or under a tree, and gaze into the eyes of our pain for a little while. It may have something to say to us.

Katlyn writes about history, travel, and culture… with some snark. www.KatlynRoberts.com.

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