Pain is strange. Couldn't the body have figured out a better way to tell you something's wrong? Why is pain the only alarm we have? Not even bleeding is enough to tell you something's wrong, as you might not feel that happening. And what's the point of suffering chronic pain? Pain is the way your body says something's wrong, but what if that something wrong just so happens to be endless pain? What's the point?
Maybe asking these questions is the wrong thing to do. See, I began to think about what a Stoic Sage might say about pain. And why not? Stoics are no strangers to pain, physical or otherwise, chronic or minor.
Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, was shipwrecked, though if he was the one actually stranded or just an unlucky business man is up for debate. Seneca suffered from asthma his entire life, possibly other illnesses, and then committed suicide at the orders of Nero. Epictetus's leg was broken when he was a slave and suffered the rest of his life. And Marcus Aurelius had to watch nearly all his children die, then suffer cancer, which caused him to decide to starve himself to death. These are only the names of the older Stoics at that and even then, only the more famous ones. Who knows how many unnamed Stoics suffered similar or worse pains for their entire lives. Even modern Stoics today, such as Keith Seddon who suffers from chronic fatigue, deal with their pain philosophically.
But how can we just starting out in Stoicism deal with pain?
I decided to do an thought experiment: ask two different Stoic Sages – one theistic, the other atheistic – about pain. Here's what I got.
Okay, so, why pain?
Theistic Sage: The gods saw it befitting for man to experience pain as the means of telling us something is the matter. And though we're reasoning creatures, it isn't up to us to question why the gods would allow pain. Perhaps the gods weren't able to prevent it, in which case we cannot be upset with them. Perhaps there is a greater purpose. In that case, we should feel honored. Besides, as good people, the gods would rather keep testing us than let us become soft like bad people. It may not be the favor of the gods you were looking for, but know that by enduring it well and keeping yourself good, you stand beside the gods as kin.
Atheistic Sage: Evolution helped this happen. Those that felt pain were more likely to seek help or avoid doing something that could kill them, so really, pain is more of a survival thing. It kept our ancestors alive, so in some way we should be grateful to feel pain, otherwise we would have died off a long time ago.
What can we do when we have pain?
TS: Simple. Realize it actually isn't hurting you as a person, just your body. And what is your body but a vessel for your soul?
AS: Well, besides the soul junk, I agree with my fellow here. Who we are isn't being hurt. And we don't normally define ourselves by our bodies.
TS: Correct. We don't consider it good when we or other people judge who are person is by their looks – their bodies, really – alone. So to say that our bodies affect us wouldn't be good, either. By this reasoning, we shouldn't let what happens to our bodies, such as pain, affect who we are.
But that's talking about the person we are at our cores. Let's face it, we might not be our bodies, but we can feel what's happening.
AS: Of course. We're merely outlining our thoughts on pain. It's something more practical you want.
TS: But this, too, is simple. Pain is out of our control. Lamenting about it isn't going to make you feel better. In fact, it can make you feel even worse about the pain. Suffering is the problem here.
AS: And all you have to do is realize what you can do about your can and what you can't do.
TS: Right. You can't control when it happens. You can't control if a pain pill or some movie is going to help take away the pain. You can only control your thoughts about the pain.
So it isn't about making pain good or bad? It's about making your suffering less?
AS: Pain is unavoidable. Sometimes, it's part of our daily lives. Trying to run away from pain is only going to make it that much worse when it actually gets to you. Instead of running, we should think differently about pain.
But it doesn't work all the time.
TS: It would if you were a sage.
AS: And, let's face it, we're not, either. You made us up.
TS: No one is perfect. It isn't about getting it all the time. It's about being able to when you can.
I have more thoughts on this, but I'm going to leave it off for now to better develop those ideas.