If Philosophy Is the Answer, Why Are We Still Hurting?

George J. Ziogas

You can’t erase pain and you can’t erase hurt

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The beauty of philosophy is that there’s no right or wrong answer when you philosophize. Anything is up for discussion, everything is on the table. But many people believe that philosophy is the answer. If this is true, why do we still hurt?

First of all, when we talk about hurt and pain, we imply that it’s an unpleasant experience. Are pain and hurt always unpleasant? If not, what does that mean?

Now, I’m not talking about the pain that comes from standing on a piece of Lego or even the hurt you feel when you burn your hand on a hot pan. Of course, this is unpleasant pain, but fans of tattoos would posit that the needlework of a skilled tattoo artist is more pleasurable than pain. So, even when discussing physical pain, you have to consider that it’s not unpleasant to everyone. I digress, the point is we’re all acquainted with some form of physical pain.

Likewise, there are unpleasant experiences that can’t be classed as pain. For example, an itch is annoying and unpleasant, but it isn’t pain because it doesn’t hurt. Nausea, also, is unpleasant but isn’t necessarily pain. The burn that follows an intense workout could be classed as pain, but it may border on pleasurable because it’s part of a fitness journey.

The point is pain is subjective. What’s painful to you might not be painful to me and vice versa.

Is pain the same as hurt?

When we reference hurting, we’re talking about emotional pain, rather than physical pain. With so much to argue in terms of physical pain, however, it highlights just how difficult emotional pain can be to pinpoint.

For example, the trauma of old may make certain emotional pain more intense for you in the present. That old hurt that never healed may weigh heavily on you, making it difficult to overcome, especially when you’re faced with something similar.

The fact of the matter is, whatever philosophy suggests or opines, hurt and pain are a natural part of the human condition. There’s nothing you can do to eliminate these issues from your life, you can only find ways to mitigate them.

When you visit the doctor with a pain problem, they’ll ask you to rate it using the pain scale (1–10). You put a number on your pain and even though it might not be the most precise way to articulate what you’re going through, that’s how it is. When you rate your pain as a seven, then you’re communicating seriously unpleasant sensations. It can’t be judged or inspected to determine whether it’s accurate.

The official definition of pain was, for years, simply an unpleasant experience (whether it be sensory or emotional) that’s associated with potential tissue damage. The International Association of the Study of Pain finally updated their definition to include social, biological, and psychological factors. Of course, pain can be experienced by nonverbal people and animals, too. Just because they can’t communicate their pain to tell you they would rate it as a seven doesn’t mean they’re not experiencing pain. Likewise, the old definition missed the fact that you could feel no pain despite suffering actual tissue damage.

It’s difficult to diagnose a state of pain because it’s less description and more performative expression. As noted earlier, pain is truly subjective.

It’s also important to note how the old definition, while encompassing emotional and sensory pain, completely overlooked the hurt that comes from trauma, grief, or hurt feelings.

To understand pain, consider this from philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein — “the meaning of a word is its use in the language.” Therefore, when you offer your friends a six-pack and pizza for helping you move, you’re giving them an offering in exchange for the pain (you know, sore back they’ll wake up with). If you apologize for being a pain in someone’s backside, you’re using pain subjectively. It fills in as bodily strain, impatience, or annoyance.

There’s also the obligation by which compensation is appropriate. When you experience hurt you question where that hurt came from. Who’s to blame? Who’s obligated to provide you with relief? Or care? When we experience hurt and pain, we ask political questions, we ask moral questions, and we want answers. Especially when our hurt appears to be a chronic issue.

Poena, the Latin word from which pain is derived meant punishment or penalty. When discussing pain as we know it, the romance languages instead use dolor to discuss it, whereas the English word for pain evolved from a word that revolved around punishment, as well as other suffering. Political philosopher Thomas Hobbes would write of pain as lawful punishment, the two were entirely inseparable.

As medicine evolved and anesthesia and painkillers emerged, we have relief from pain for a variety of complaints. While this is beneficial, there’s a consequence — it’s changed our view of pain. It’s become a medical pain, rather than a penal, moral, or legal issue. While we’ve done plenty to help mitigate human suffering, we’ve not successfully conquered hurt and pain. Chronic pain remains a challenge medically, creating social and economic issues in cases of disability.

Many religions would argue that pain is something to be endured. Suffering is welcome because it’s a sign of favor, salvation, or martyrdom. Yet, we have more empathy for an animal in pain, telling others that they shouldn’t have to suffer. We offer that same compassion to children, as well as the dying. Mitigating pain has become a large part of our world.

There are all types of factors that contribute to pain, both emotional and physical pain. Today, that’s recognized by the medical profession. This is why we don’t view the infliction of pain as an acceptable punishment in a civilized society. No one is being sentenced to a cat of nine tails today.

This has bred certain arguments — such as, do people have a right to relief from pain? If it’s possible to prevent pain (or relieve it), is there an obligation for us to do so? Medical insurance may provide you with coverage for an assortment of issues, but often mental health is overlooked, thus making emotional pain relief a difficult course of action for many people. With so many different authorities and corporations with a vested interest, it’s difficult to make progress.

The more we learn about pain and hurt, in all forms, and the progress we’ve made on medical and scientific fronts, the question remains — why are we still hurting?

You can’t erase pain. You can’t erase hurt. The only thing you can do is learn to describe your pain and hurt to find ways to mitigate your pain and hurt, and to accept it’s a part of life and always will be.

To Jeremy Bentham, pain and pleasure were objective. The likes of Marquis de Sade, however, viewed pain and hurt as an issue of ethics, one that could be pursued as pleasurable (such as pain as a form of revenge or a form of punishment). It was Bentham’s view, however, that swept Europe in the 19th century. The problem was that the attempt to suppress de Sade’s view turned it into an indulgent pleasure.

Nietzsche was a philosopher who experienced chronic illness and pain throughout his life and his writing intertwined the meaning of pain with the meaning of life. I’d like to leave you with the following quote:

“Did you ever say yes to a pleasure? Oh my friends, then you also said yes to all pain. All things are linked, entwined, in love with one another.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

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