Jo Cameron munching on super-hot chillies
“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” I heard writer Matt Haig say on the radio last week. It’s from an old Buddhist proverb and it brought me up short because I thought that suffering was also inevitable and part of the human condition.
As it happens, pain isn’t inevitable for everyone either! Jo Cameron, a woman from Inverness, can’t feel pain due to a genetic condition. She experienced no pain during childbirth and has never used painkillers, even following surgery on severe hip joint degeneration, which was when her “superpower” was finally discovered by her anaesthetist (seen above watching incredulously as she munches on scotch bonnet chillies). She knows the advantages of feeling pain though - she can burn herself on a hot plate without noticing until the smell of charred flesh alerts her. "Pain is there for a reason” she says, “it warns you - you hear alarm bells”. It is an extremely rare condition and scientists think she may be able to provide some answers to how we feel - or don’t feel – pain. She is quite comfortable with all the attention. In fact she is comfortable with everything. The genes responsible for her condition also make her forgetful, and happy too. "It's called the happy gene” she says. “I have been annoying people by being happy and forgetful all my life - I've got an excuse now!"
But for most of us pain, to some degree or other, both physical and mental, and the suffering that goes along with it, is all too present in our lives. So how can we make the second part, the suffering, ‘optional’? The same proverb explains how it works. When we feel pain it is like being shot with an arrow, or a ‘dart’. The pain we immediately feel is known as the first dart and is inescapable. The suffering we feel is the ‘second dart’ we inflict on ourselves and, with training, our minds can be made less susceptible to this second dart. Say we are carrying a heavy box of books and we drop it on our foot. Aagghh! There is pain. The second dart is screaming at ourselves: “How could I be so stupid?” “Why am I so clumsy?” “I have probably broken my toe”, etc. etc.. Pretty quickly, not just a second dart, but many more can puncture us, until we end up looking like a pin cushion. The same applies to events of mental pain and anguish. The anxious thoughts that arise immediately following the initial pain can be substantial and ongoing, piling on the agony.
We cannot escape the first darts – they are part of life. Even the second darts are programmed into us through evolution. The propensity we have for seeing threats to us is known as the ‘negative bias principle’, and if our ancestors kept admonishing themselves for some lapse of judgment (not spotting that leopard in the tree for example) perhaps they were the ones who lived to fight another day. Today, however bad we think things may be, life is not nearly as perilous as when the first humans began to roam the savannah, yet our minds still work overtime in seeking out the negative in everything we do, everything we think. Even if it is at a subconscious level most of the time, it can still be very corrosive to our well-being.
Can we undo millions of years of evolution? Probably not, certainly not completely. Instead, we must manage with what we have and at least try and recognise what is happening to us in painful situations. Maybe that’s all we can do; saying to ourselves: “Oh I see, it’s that second dart again!” It might not relieve the pain but it’s a good start.