[this is the first part of a series I am writing on The Vatican Sayings Of Epicurus. For the introduction to the series, click here.]
"All bodily suffering is negligible: for that which causes acute pain has short duration, and that which endures long in the flesh causes but mild pain." Epicurus, 1st Vatican Saying.
Anyone who has decided to skip that after-work martini or that second slice of pizza knows the truth in (at least) the second part of this saying. I certainly do: there are certain kinds of appetites that invite a dull ache into our lives simply by our acquisition of them. The mild pain that is caused by the absence of any of life's various narcotics is one of the underlying themes of this blog; it's also something that can be lived with if it is understood.
Desire can cause mild pain, but sometimes it's a pleasant ache: I look forward to seeing my kids at the end of the day. I look forward to asking my wife how her day was, and I look forward to laying in bed and reading a book before I fall asleep.
There are other kinds of mild pains that are pleasant: there is an anticipatory ache during sexual encounters that is profoundly pleasant. Aches for familiar people and scenery, and aches for food and drink* can also make the reward of finally experiencing them heightened and satisfying.
There are other kinds of mild pains that are tolerable. Epicurus--who struggled with chronic disease for his whole life--must have been a master of this subject. As a person who suffers from ulcerative colitis, I also am aware of pains that can be put up with. I often have a vague string of pain that climbs up my intestine, and due to often being anemic from my condition, I experience bouts of fatigue. Sometimes it's necessary for me to work through them in order to find a greater pleasure. Sometimes they have to be indulged, and I can find pleasure lying in bed too. Constantly pursuing peak highs with no lows will make you miserable. I've discovered that--at least for me--it's important to be something of a connoisseur of experiences: there are subtle shades and bright colors, and all can be appreciated for what they are, and if they cannot be appreciated, they can (at least in some cases) be endured. Suffering is part of life, and like all parts of our life, we must have a meaningful relationship with it.
This brings me to the subject of acute pain brought up in the first part of this post. I spoke to a young man the other day who suffers from bipolar disorder. He was deeply upset about a mistake that was made by the social security office that might end up affecting his housing options. He was off his medication, and was visibly very disturbed. Although he began by talking about throwing himself in front of a bus, and punching a table that sat between us, the act of talking through his predicament calmed him down.
Now, even as a person who does not have bipolar disorder, I can understand the anxiety that must accompany such a situation. Clearly, talking helped him navigate his feelings, just as talking often helps me; but as someone who has never experience mental illness, extreme disease (like cancer), or the tragic loss of a close family member, I feel uncomfortable talking with certainty about the endurability of certain forms of acute pain.
I do have guiding lights I can look to in this matter, however, who seem to validate Epicurus's thoughts on the survival of acute suffering.
Malcolm Varner is a person who blogs about his own experience with mental illness, and the various ways in which a person suffering with bouts of what I can only refer to as 'dark nights of the soul' can thrive. I have experienced despair, doubt, fear, and the whole range of human emotions. Yet I am conscious that folks who suffer from bipolar disorder and many other mental illnesses experience these emotions in much more acute ways than I am capable of conceiving. And many folks--like Malcolm--learn to constructively deal with them. This gives me solace.
And then there is Christopher Hitchens, who is not only dealing with stage four cancer with a bravery (and realism) that is utterly breathtaking and inspiring, but has managed to live a very admirable life after experiencing the great personal tragedy of losing his mother to suicide. I know it's risky to paraphrase Christopher Hitchens, but his decision to not 'move on' or heal after this event--he wants the wound of the suicide to remain because it is real, and is a kind of memorial to his mother--tells me that even if it cannot be overcome, acute pain can be survived, and possibly even transformed into a mild pain that can be integrated into who you are.
*The difference between the mild pain that is caused when you forgo that after-work martini or slice of pizza is worlds away from the mild (pleasant) pain of anticipating a nice glass of beer at a festival, or a plate of your mom's walnut chicken: one kind of ache is due to a desire to escape experience, and the other is due to a desire to fully inhabit an experience.