Neil Pearson wrote an inspirational and informative comment from a soldier on the front lines of pain therapy about my last entry [which described another neurological confirmation of an empathetic response actually engaging the pain centers of the brain, when a subject witnessed realistic (fake) videos of inflicted pain]. If pain is an issue for you, I encourage you to read his comment.
I forgot to mention something important in my brief report. Beyond stoicism, perhaps not so very far in distance, is the psychopath whose brain simply does not respond to witnessing pain. A number of studies have now shown that the brains of such individuals just don’t respond with normal activation patterns reflecting felt pain and empathy, when they witness even horrific pain or suffering incurred by others. Their brain just doesn’t CARE.
Sensitivity to pain, and its ability to dominate a person’s thoughts and behaviors, is a highly variable resource. I first learned this as a young boy 7 or 8 years of age, when my mom and dad decided that my older brother Eddie and me should learn the pugilistic arts so that we could defend ourselves from bullying. Off we went, to the hayloft in the barn of a neighbor with prize-fighting experience, where we learned to jump rope, to rat-a-tat-tat the air bag, and to whack (scarcely moving) the heavy bag. Everything was going well for me at our boxing lessons until our instructor put me into the boxing ring for a one-round match with a larger, older, more-experienced boy. In a matter of a few seconds, he hit me squarely on the nose, and it hurt like the dickens. In my brother’s telling, from that point onward I generated three minutes of continuous flailing, roundhouse punches, a veritable whirling dervish of non-stop action that both amazed and completely stymied my opponent. “He couldn’t lay a finger on you!”, my brother Eddie liked to tell. You should understand that I never stopped swinging because I would have done almost ANYTHING not to be hit in the nose and experience that pain again!
For months afterward, I did everything possible to avoid repeating this painful experience, because it hurt like hell just thinking about it! Meanwhile, I learned by observation that other boys could get banged on the nose or ears a hundred times, AND THEY JUST DIDN’T CARE.
Tolerance of pain is not a strictly inherited attribute. My younger brother Jim once fell of a 50-ft-high cliff while he was fishing, and was several miles from his car. He had a compound fracture of his leg, had broken several ribs, and suffered from numerous deep bruises and abrasions. Because he was alone, he literally dragged himself that two miles to his car, where another person came by, and helped him get up into the driver’s seat. He declined further help. Whereupon he drove to the hospital in Enterprise, Oregon, about 15 miles from the Losteen River campground where his car had been parked. Two or three days later, with his leg now set and put into a cast and his skin sewed up and bandaged ribs and bruises, he put on his clothes, snuck out of his hospital room (he was supposed to stay there for awhile), and drove home to LaGrande, maybe 50 miles away. “Why?” we asked. “It was costing too much, and I had lots of work to do,” he said, matter-of-factly.
My brother Jim has repeatedly demonstrated through his life that pain just isn’t that important to him. If I had fallen off that cliff, I would still be there, reduced to dry bones after a week or two of pathetic whining and whimpering and hurting and a whole lot of really serious SUFFERING!!
“You’re a better man than I am, brother Jim.”