A Little Bit of Pain Isn't Always a Bad Thing

Whenever I get a tattoo or piercing (I have cartilage piercings in both ears), one of the first things people ask is, "Did that hurt?"

Jan 11, 2012 at 10:00am | Leave a comment

I'm in pain today.

The other night, because the timing was right and I'd been planning it for quite some time, I went to Black Chapel Tattoo. I've been there before -- they did my first tattoo for me. That was text only, and it only took about 45 minutes. (I shopped around before that one, and the amount of attitude I got from artists about doing a "boring" tattoo.... Black Chapel was and continues to be amazing, y'all.)

This tattoo took three hours.

image


Whenever I get a tattoo or piercing (I have cartilage piercings in both ears), one of the first things people ask is, "Did that hurt?"

I'm certainly not going to say this is a stupid question. After all, if you've never had a piercing or tattoo, you probably don't have a frame of reference for the experience. There's a lot of anecdata that runs the gamut. This is because pain is relative -- and the pain of tattooing is highly variable anyway, depending on placement.

But the general answer is, yes. Someone is pushing needles into you or through you. Yes, it hurts. And it continues to hurt (unlike piercings, which are almost instantly pain-free for me) because you've done a bunch of trauma to your skin and healing takes time. That's why I'm in pain today, in fact. It's really down to how you as an individual respond to that pain.

I sat for three hours and let someone deliberately hurt me. It wasn't excruciating, not by a long shot. But it did register as pain -- and that's actually OK by me because pain is not a no-good terrible bad thing.

The lengths we'll go to in order to avoid discomfort are kind of fascinating to me. This culture's fear of pain seems to be at the root of our cultural fear of aging, in some ways (well, obviously, our cultural fear of death isn't helping with that either). And it definitely has an impact on the way disability is seen and talked about.

In some ways, this avoidance of pain is totally logical. It's easier to be pain free -- not easier to magically live without pain but living is easier when you aren't in pain, I mean. I understand why people want to preserve that state.

image


What doesn't make sense is the way people think life's value is lessened by pain. We have a tendency, as a culture, to cast people who live with pain in one of two roles -- victim or saint. We pity them or we use them to inspire us.

Both of those are totally bogus responses. Not because I don't understand the feelings behind them, but because it's such an objectifying way to look at another person. Oh, we're all so used to talking about the objectification of women -- but we do it to other bodies as well.

When we use other people's lives -- and their imagined pain -- to make ourselves feel unreasoningly virtuous (as though living well can prevent anything bad from happening to us) or to minimize our own problems (as though our suffering means nothing in the face of, for example, children with disabilities), we're objectifying those people, erasing their humanity.

Y'all, that's so gross.

Suffering isn't noble, no matter how many cheesy platitudes we are fed about pain meaning we're alive. The only philosophical value I really place on pain is this: "Life is pain, Highness." Pain is one of the few inescapable things in the universe. We're all going to hurt in some way. It is a commonality, even as the experience lf it is as individual as we all are.

It seems like we go the other way, too, though. People take pride in avoiding basic pain killers -- I fall into this habit all the time. "Oh, I don't NEED that." As though taking a Tylenol is a sign of some debilitating immoral chemical dependence. Really, it's that my leg hurts and the Tylenol helps with that. What's funny is that I am so against the stigma associated with psychiatric meds. Like, if you have a broken leg, no one gives you grief for using a crutch.

The double standard -- where we put pain on a pedestal even as we distance ourselves from it at every opportunity -- is beyond counterproductive. In fact, if you'll excuse the horrible pun, it hurts us.

As a culture, we stigmatize people with chronic pain while simultaneously refusing to acknowledge our own pain, even as we judge other people who experience pain differently or have varying tolerances for it. All that does is disconnect us from our own experiences -- as well as from the experiences of other people. Our cultural sense of consciousness and our cultural perception have effectively broken down so that we can't even take care of ourselves, much less other people.

image


I had three hours of sitting and not being allowed to move, y'all. Forgive me the philosophical wandering.

It just makes me wonder -- if we were willing to be a little less comfortable, would we be a lot better off in the long run? If we were willing to experience pain without being embarrassed by it or ashamed of it, without attaching arbitrary meaning to the pain of others, would we be more empathetic?

I'm in pain today, and my ankle is a little bit swollen because I keep running around and not resting my leg the way I should. I've also got a jellyfish (they've been around for at least 500 million years -- jellyfish endure) tattoo that means a lot to me. It was worth a little bit of pain.