Is Pain A Good Thing?

I had a cortisol injection this morning to hopefully relieve pain and inflammation in my thenar eminence (thumb pad.) While I’ve had multiple covid, flu, pneumonia, shingles, and other shots in the last few years this one really hurt. In fact, it was the most painful shot that I can recall. (My doctor thought he might have hit a nerve.)

Now I’m not complaining. I can’t even imagine the pain of childbirth, breaking my femur, being shot or stabbed, severely depressed or incarcerated, or a thousand other things. Furthermore, the severe pain only lasted about 30 seconds. But it caused me to reflect on pain. Those 30 seconds were, as the utilitarians would say, a bad thing. Imagining that very brief state being extended for many years would render life not worth living.

In my case, the potential benefit of alleviating my current pain with 30 seconds of intense pain is well worth it. But if that pain were extended for a significant time with no potential benefit then life would be bereft of meaning.

Now you could argue that I also gain from the shot by being reminded of how fortunate I am to be relatively healthy and not in pain—although I’ve always been skeptical of those “you need to experience the bad in order to know the good” arguments. Moreover, my very brief encounter with pain also reminds me to help and be sympathetic to others in pain.

Yet the biggest takeaway from this very minor experience was … physical and emotional pain is unequivocally bad and we should do all we can to eliminate it. And yes I’m familiar with the various arguments for the benefits of pain but I’ve never found any of them at all convincing.

Also, this does not mean that I’m advocating that we be connected to Nozick‘s experience machine (where we experience continual bliss) but that we definitely should be disconnected from the many ills of our existence. Here’s to hoping that someday, somehow, we can create a world in which all conscious beings can flourish.

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11 thoughts on “Is Pain A Good Thing?

  1. Dear Doctor: steroid therapy is usually painful, because by the time it is delivered, the condition requiring it is advanced, and, our bodies’ abilities to cope are degraded. The good news is it usually helps. The short answer to the original question is: you bet it is! It shows your body’s pain receptors are functioning well—a good sign other critical systems are doing their respective jobs. This is a DO point of view and diagnosis. I am not a DO. Please let me know if you might consider my doing a guest post on your blog. Have done a brief one elsewhere; have another, longer one, under negotiation. I think your site could be a good fit for all.

  2. Ouch! Once had to pass a kidney stone that brought tears to the eyes and put me on my knees in agony. Made me aware how such pain, if continued, would literally make “the living envy the dead.” Thank God that the memory of pain doesn’t dominate us less another child might never be born. I guess we would all prefer reading about suffering than experiencing it. Hope you are on the mend and that experience is buried down a memory hole.

  3. thanks for the consoling words Kevin. And no doubt there are many fates worse than death.

  4. Remembered something. A song from the past, titled Nature’s Way. Can’t call back the name of the band, but they were more than a one hit wonder I think. Anyway, one recurring line was “It’s natures way of telling you something’s wrong”. That seems as good an excuse for pain as any, what?

  5. Dr. Messerly,

    sorry to hear you were in pain, and I too hope it’s gone forever.

    Pain can be really strange. When I was a child, I fell with my face on a stone and all my front teeth flew out of my mouth, but I do not recall any pain. I remember only the face of a lady who saw me, she looked like the mom in the movie “The Exorcist” when she sees the devil.

    But I remember every mean word unfairly said to me, which I find actually surprising. I am not at all saying that physical pain is nothing to me. Sometimes I feel like a nail is being driven into my wrist, but it only lasts a couple of seconds. This started to happen after I forced open a stupid jar of sauce that was really hard to open. I too thought about pain, and had similar conclusions to yours.

    I think it was Aristotle who said something like”Happiness consists not in seeking pleasures, but in avoiding pain.”.

    I agree with you in regard to the really weak arguments about “feeling the bad to know the good”. It is obvious that this is said by people who never experienced extreme pain, mental or physical, which is different from lesser pain. Once, I attended a lecture about Beethoven. The lecturer thought that if Beethoven had not experienced all the atrocious evils he experienced throughout his life, he would never have composed his great music.

    That was probably one of the most stupid things I have ever heard.

    I wish you a great week end,

  6. PS. instead of “one of the stupidest things I have heard” I should have written that, in the best of cases, the lecturer could not know whether or not Beethoven would have written great music, since he didn’t have another, healthy and happy version of Beethoven to compare him to.

    And, surely, great music is not always sad, either. And so on. In a word, I think that the lecturer was mad.

  7. I am wholly sold on “suffering-focused ethics” and the asymmetry of the value of misery minimization vs well-being maximization.

    Humans are part of the natural world, and suffering is both devoid of intrinsic worth and to some extent unavoidable, even if hooked to a Nozick machine, as all machines, being in the world, have countless vulnerabilities.

    It behooves us to develop a bit of tolerance for unavoidable pain, and esp. psychological pain which I bet rises with GDP. Most of all, it behooves us to grow a character that is problem-prevention-oriented.

    In particular, from a suffering prevention perspective, the decision to have children, or not, and why, I think rises to the level of by far the most important and arduous ethical decision. And veganism seems like a no-brainer. (Me I am not entirely vegan yet, but am gradually turning ice cream into a less Needful Thing.)

    30 seconds of really severe injection pain is actually a lot of seconds. Hopefully it was 1st and last needed, but for any future ref, one can ask that smallest suitable needles be used. Most, but, to my surprise, not all providers, necessarily much think about minimizing pain, unless it’s effortless or billable.

  8. thanks for the thoughtful comments. The anti natalism argument is strong even if one disagrees with it. And our entire family are vegans and I have never felt so good.

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