Pain Without Purpose

The Modern Dilemma

"We must remain absolutely silent on what we cannot talk about." Wittgenstein's interdict would surely apply to the mystery of human suffering; at certain intensities, pain becomes literally as well as idiomatically unspeakable. Even to allude to the educative value of pain is to risk an inhuman glibness, a cold-blooded reduction of the specificity of suffering to chill, abstract formulae. We must begin by confessing the ultimate intractability of the problem. Against pain and death we fight a losing battle; and the mystery, always insoluble, has, if anything, become more agonizingly problematic in our own time. Caring for the chronically and terminally ill has always been intensely difficult; in the modern world, technological advances notwithstanding, it has become immeasurably more so.

A world without anesthetics would be a hell; deprived of analgesics even so routine an event as a visit to the dentist would be something to be dreaded and shunned. To avoid or to minimize pain is an instinctive natural reflex; deliberate search for suffering is a perversion to which we give the name masochism. Yet it is equally true that a world without pain would be calamitous. Pain is essential to survival—without it we would perish. It is an early warning system, a defense mechanism, vital in preventive medicine against incipient and impending evil. Without pain teeth would rot insensibly in our gums, limbs quietly crumble...

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