When I was little and my dad had to put alcohol or iodine on my scrapes and cuts (and let me tell you, I had the biggest — if not the best — scrapes and cuts. I think I was 12 before I kept intact skin on my knees for more than a week or so) he’d say “Of course it’s hurting. If it hurts it’s healing.”
This is of course nonsense. If you put your hand in a brazier it will hurt like hell, but it’s not healing anything. In fact, it’s destroying your hand and all its structures. And quite opposite what the mechanism of pain is supposed to do. Or to put it succinctly: pain is there to stop you doing things that destroy parts of you.
Got that, right?
Pain is in fact an extremely effective mechanism to stop you doing things that could hurt you or even destroy you. It’s one of the reasons all great apes “spank” their offspring. A swat to the butt, a smack to the hand, and the little ape who doesn’t get “don’t melt your crayons on the heater, you’re going to set the house on fire” or “don’t run out on the street, you’ll get run over” while still totally ignorant of why he shouldn’t do these things, internalizes “I shouldn’t do these things, they bring pain.”
The problem is this mechanism of pain is only perfectly suited and evolutionary correct to make the organism successful (the definition of success in nature is stay alive, reproduce) if you are a much simpler form of life, like say a squid or a very primitive fish. In those cases, if you feel pain, you should probably stop doing whatever you’re doing, so that you can survive and go on to have offspring. (If plants are capable of feeling pain, as some people now theorize, this would apply to them too. Stretch your leaf that way, it burns, pull it off that — very slowly, I suppose, though the idea of a plant waving its arms around is funny — would work too. Mind you, I haven’t looked into any of that research, so I’m not sure how valid it is. Though those great ethicists, the Arrogant Worms assure us they hear the screams of the vegetables.)
The problem arises from the fact that you — and me, and more than likely everyone reading this — are not a primitive fish or a cephalopod, and I’m almost sure none of you is a plant. Instead you and I and all of the human race are rather insane apes. Apes crazy enough to climb down from the trees, to explore the savannah, and then to leave that behind and take over the rest of the world, most of which environments aren’t even really well suited to naked apes. Imagine for a moment how crazy an ape needs to be to create airplanes.
Which means that pain is a double edged sword for humans. It is useful in learning to stop destructive behaviors and might be useful in learning. (I don’t know. It was extensively used in my elementary education. Can’t say it ever did much. When you transpose digits you transpose digits. The teacher might think that the fact you answer 6×7=24 means you haven’t studied, but it just means that you transposed 42 and she didn’t leave you time enough to count on your fingers. I have to say ruler to the hand proved quite ineffective in rewiring my brain. It might have worked more/better if it were a genuine case of laziness or stubbornness, though I don’t think so, because sometimes that too calls for rewiring. But I understand that before we all got so sensitive, it was used in all sorts of teaching, and I doubt they’d use it for centuries if it didn’t work for ANYONE.)
It is however spectacularly bad at giving us indications that we should stop some behaviors when in fact we desperately need to do them.
Take exercise (please. At least an hour a day. I try.) It often hurts. It particularly hurts if you haven’t been doing it and are trying to force a long-unused limb to function.
By the time I turned forty I realized some parts of me hurt more or less all the time, notably my feet. But I’d had friends in the past who completely stopped walking for exercise, and tried to limit their time on their feet, because it hurt. Their back brain was telling them “it hurts, let’s stop this.” Because, you know, when the capacity to feel pain came to organisms long ago it was useful to prevent behaviors that would kill you. So the primitive chordates who felt pain left more offspring, while the ones who didn’t swam right into the equivalent of a woodchipper laughing all the way because they didn’t feel any pain at all.
I’d seen my friends stop using whatever hurt, trying to avoid pain at all costs, and slowly ending up unable to use that part. The end of that road was truly spectacularly bad health (I mean, beyond the fact my body is sui generis) and the mobility scooter.
Because I know that and I have free will and a higher brain, I leaned into the pain even when every step I took was like walking on knives (in retrospect that apparently was the result of concussion. Who knew?) muttering “shut up body, you’re not the boss of me.”
Now, when you’re doing something like that, you need an external authority, someone you can trust who tells you “at this point you’re just doing damage.” For exercise, your doctor will do. Though of course, I didn’t have a doctor I could trust for complex reasons. But it worked. After a while it didn’t hurt as much or I got used to it, and I’m not in a mobility scooter (And really, who thinks pain in the arches of your feet is the result of hitting your head? There should be more information about that stuff, right?)
The same applies to emotional pain. There is much — much — debate about whether animals can feel emotional pain, and most of it is discussed in the sort of terms that make me want to put my head through a wall to stop THAT pain, if you know what I mean. Sure it’s valid to say “if the fish can be sad, we can’t eat him.” Valid and insane. Because since some people think even plants feel pain and sadness and what not, it means we can’t eat anything. Or, you know, we can accept the pain of knowing that we have to kill and eat things that can feel sadness, do it as humanely as possible, and stay alive. Because — news flash — other animals/plants eat each other too. Until we’re advanced enough to manufacture nutrition out of inert materials, that’s just the way the world is built.
Sure, that emotional pain you feel, the sense of void, when your life is a never ending round of drunken binges is there for an evolutionary reason. It tells you, “Ouch, stop that.”
But just like the pain of exercise, of teaching an old(or young) body new tricks, there is a different type of emotional pain. It feels the same. It feels exactly the same. Which is where you must think yourself out of the hole. (Or hire a qualified professional, and though I have a very good psychiatrist friend, most of the profession… never mind. Go and read this article when you have time. Most of them seem to think pain is bad and you should stop it. Maybe they are primitive fish.)
I’ve spoken here, before, of my acculturation to the US. It hurt like hell. I mean at the level of emotional pain that you just want to stop it.
I was fairly successful and fairly happy (yeah, I never fit in, but some of us are used to not fitting in, and that’s not exactly painful) as a single adult in Portugal. And then I found myself in a country where I was an infant. Things I did that were okay or even courteous in Portugal suddenly offended people. Ways of finding my way, or finding places to shop, or even deciding what to cook for dinner were completely different. And I did things wrong. Of course I did things wrong. So many things wrong. In fact they were so wrong I didn’t even know what the right things were, or what I should be watching for. The language in which I was very — thank you — proficient led to patterns of thinking and expressing myself that signaled completely wrong here. (Arguably, after 12 years, when I was first published, there was still a lingering effect. I tended to pour English out in never ending sentences which, while grammatically correct, gave people the idea my goal in life was to be “literary” or to emphasize language over character and plot. It was in fact neither of the above; just a side effect of the brain pathways of growing up in a Latin-derived language.)
I fell, like most humans do, into a pattern of complaining about everything. Everything was wrong, everything was mean to me. People discriminated against me (it seemed like that when I had clue zero what I was doing wrong. It seemed like people went out of their way to be mean.) I also attracted the sort of friend one attracts in those circumstances.
Until I realized that when I kept telling myself I could never fit in and would never be accepted I was making it a self-fulfilling prophecy. So, I ditched the friends and set about figuring out what I was doing wrong and how to fix it. By and large, it worked, though of course, it’s a process of advance and set backs (more on that later.) In some ways I’m still figuring out what I’m doing wrong. All of us are. Even those who never changed countries and cultures.
There is — at least on one side of the political divide — an impulse to keep people from feeling that pain of adjustment. Their philosophy is not “what hurts heals” (which is fairly deranged) but “it hurts. Bad. Stop it. If you make the poor immigrant feel emotional pain, you’re racist.” (Which is both deranged, counterproductive, and de-facto racist.)
Am I judged differently because I speak with an accent and tan rather well (more perceptible now that I have more or less normal thyroid levels)? Sure. It’s not even a question. For instance, NY publishers decided on sight that my “authentic” voice was somewhere between Portugal and South America. No, seriously. It took me years to understand I was being perceived as something other than white. (The sad thing being that now people back in Portugal view themselves as Latin. Thus the insanity propagates.)
But we’re all judged on all kinds of things. I would even work on losing my accent, if it were worth enough to me, painful though it would be. But it would take a long time and a lot of work (and I’m mostly deaf particularly in the fine distinctions so it would take even more time and work) and I’d rather be writing.
Does it hurt? Now? No. It hurts going back to Portugal, because I fall into this state of not knowing how to do/procure anything. And I can no longer use language … proficiently. I understand it fine and can speak it for most daily purposes, but I’m no longer a proficient user. Living here? English? No. That’s just normal. At some point the pain stops.
There is another situation, one that’s more difficult because it neither fits the side of “it hurts, stop it.” or “It only hurts till you get good at it.”
Let’s face it, we’re not only insane apes. We live in a society populated by insane apes. And in my lifetime some of those insane apes have been possessed by a belief in a philosophy that screws up every field it touches. And it’s touched most creative fields, where, for my sins, I must work.
The problem is this: writing matters to me. I don’t think it matters more than my family, because it only matters as much as me. But it matters as much as I do. And while I’d gladly give my life for my husband and kids, without even the slightest hesitation, and obviously gave up writing (or at least a lot of it) when the kids were small and/or the family needed me in moves, and whatever, I can’t give up writing permanently without giving up myself. Giving up writing wouldn’t be dying, precisely. I have lots of other things I want to do. But it would be dying ultimately because none of those things are part of me, essential to me and who I am.
Let’s not argue here on the concept of vocations. Some people just have them. It makes absolutely no sense, but it’s as though we were designed for this one specific thing, like those stupid tools that come with disassembled furniture and which work only for assembling it, but distort or break if you try to use it to, say, unjam your food processor or screw in the picture frame. I don’t know why. Could even be evolutionary. (Evolution doesn’t have to make sense. Evolution just is.) Or it could be the grand plan of a Great Planner. I know which one I believe, but I have no proof, and I never demanded other people believe as I do against their reason and judgement. (Against their indoctrination, yes. Or as younger son told me, when I asked him how he came to beliefs remarkably similar to mine when we never talked politics — to be fair he doesn’t TALK much — “You gave me just one guiding principle “Question everything unless absolutely and incontrovertibly proven. So the indoctrination never took. And if you’re not indoctrinated and study history and science, you’re going to end up about in the same place.”)
The point is that there is this thing I must do and what I do with it is part of me. It’s…. part of my emotional and mental anatomy. Which means when it gets stepped on, it hurts.
This was very necessary when I was just starting out. To be fair, my stories were wretched. I think everyone’s are, even if you read a lot. The spanking of getting rejections sometimes hurt so badly I stopped writing for weeks (on one notable occasion where someone mocked a story relentlessly in a writers’ group, I stopped writing for six months.) But it hurt to stop it too. And the hurt of stopping it was different. Like putting your hand in a brazier, it made part of me non-functional. I couldn’t/wouldn’t allow myself to write, so I also wouldn’t allow myself to do anything else, till I ended up in the emotional equivalent of a mobility scooter. I was okay for cleaning house, loading the dishwasher, cooking simple meals, but for the rest I was becoming incapacitated.
Which meant I had a choice between two pains. The pain of rejection was greater and more acute. The other pain? I could become habituated to it. It became the pain I lived with. Except that it kept throttling me, limiting me, preventing me from doing anything, eventually preventing me from living/feeling/existing as a normal human being.
While I probably could have lived like that (I don’t know how long. I have a medical friend who says people who do that don’t live long) it wasn’t fair to my husband or kids. They deserved better than living with zombie-Sarah.
Once that dime dropped I realized it was another of those situations. I must grit my teeth and lean into the blows I knew would come and do it. Because not doing it hurt less, but hurt forever. And eventually killed if not the body then everything else.
So I did. Of course, I didn’t do it stupidly, so I learned and studied as much as possible, so as to minimize the pain.
The thing is, in writing — and in other fields — because we’re in a broken time, and our mechanisms are all broken — arguably they always were, it’s just the way they’re broken now is probably more annoying to me than other ways they could be broken — the pain kept coming.
Dave Freer has talked about it. If you have no idea how this field works: unless you’re very good AND very lucky (yes, you need both) the field is more or less like my early attempts at living in the US: You’re going to get hit, you’re going to get hit constantly in ways great and small, and half the time you not only have no idea what you did wrong, but you didn’t actually do anything wrong, not even according to normal mores. You just set off someone’s alarms/annoyed someone personally/ or someone is annoyed at someone/something else and takes it out on you. ALL THE TIME. Because the field is fluid and performance is hard to track, it’s like running a race while random people hit you with tennis rackets and sticks and stones.
I spent years thinking if I wrote a slightly better book, or a massively better book, or a completely different kind of book, when I handed it in, it would get publicity and good print runs and good placement, and it would sell, and I would stop feeling like I was on the brink of disaster or having myself and my work devalued by the various houses I work for.
Don’t sit on the edge of your seat. The spoiler is it made absolutely no difference. None. The idea that if only your book is good enough you will sell is sold by the entire industry, but in traditional publishing (and to a certain extent in indie, though that’s more complex) it is simply not true. Your book needs to be good enough that if it catches attention your career can lift off. But you could be the offspring of Jane Austen by Shakespeare, (which, btw, I’m not claiming to be) if your printrun is so small and your distribution so limited that no one ever finds your books, and you’re impossible to find after a few months, so word of mouth makes no difference, you’re never going to take off. Instead, each book is like birthing a baby someone takes and drops into the deep ocean.
Since each book has a piece of you (some a major piece of you) you get to a point you try to give up writing. Not because you don’t want to do it, not because you don’t realize if you stop part of you dies, but because all your being is screaming “Take your hand out of the wood chipper you daft bugger.” Because it hurts. It hurts badly again and again and again and again.
And yet you can’t stop. Because to stop hurts less, but hurts constantly, and eventually kills.
If being a writer (or an artist, or a cook, or a doctor, or whatever the hell) is part of you you just have to do it. Or die.
Which is when pain is completely counterproductive. And without realizing it, you start shorting the book, or the work around the book. My latest and craziest hangup is not checking my email for days on end. Yes, I DO in fact know how crazy and stupid that is. But since the last round of pain (oh, someday. Maybe. Maybe some days I’ll tell you.) came over email, my back brain has decided it’s perfectly sane to avoid it. Which means, say, Liberty con (where I’ll be guest of honor this summer) is having a hell of a time contacting me. Which means it must stop. I must go back to being sane and checking my email every day like a normal human being. Another favorite trick of the backbrain is surfing facebook endlessly. Because if I’m doing that, I’m not writing things that will not do well, which will hurt. But even though it hurts less, it’s just a way of dying.
Sometimes the only way past the pain is through it. Sometimes the pain has a duration. Sometimes you know it’s with you for as long as you live. (I hope not. I hope I find my way through indie. It will hurt sometimes, but not… not every time. Hopefully.) But it’s who you are. It’s counterproductive pain.
And even though you have nothing left in you, nowhere from which to push, to stop is to die. In self preservation you must continue.
Sure, you can go and get medicine to inure you to the pain, but I rather suspect that’s just yet another way to die, to make yourself not-you, to stop being. And my husband doesn’t deserve to have to live with a drugged-up zombie either. (Note, if you’re suicidal or other such condition, you don’t get a choice on that, and I’m not judging.) Might as well just live with a facebook zombie.
I’m trying — I hope — to establish a routine. I think if “at nine I check my email and then I sit down to write” just becomes the “normal”thing and the “done” thing I can detach it from the smacks to the snout with baseball bat that both email and writing (or at least sending my books out into the power of others) brings. It becomes “I just do this.” And while still hating the pain, the pain is no longer the result of that, just annoying stuff that happens.
This must be what I do. This must be the way forward. I will learn. I will do it.
And I will be grateful every day I live in an era prosperous enough for this to be my pain and my problem. 100 years ago, it would be more trying to sew as my eyes failed, trying to walk as everything hurt (Thank you, Lord, for ibuprofen for those days) and — because of the autoimmune — having to cook with my hands in raw flesh.
There is always some pain to life. The less of it we endure, the more we become sensitized to it. I’m not saying that the pain I’ve met with is small. It’s not. (Trust me.) But it’s smaller than what others have to endure (oh, think of living in the Soviet Union as an individual freedom lover. Even if you don’t speak up. Particularly if you don’t speak up.) It’s just that it’s my pain, and I’m very sensitive to it.
But just as if when my feet hurt I had started avoiding walking the 3 miles I try to do for exercise, soon just walking across the living room would hurt, and then standing up would hurt. Because we become more and more sensitized to smaller and smaller pain. The back brain learns it can’t tolerate any pain and we must stop. Must stop NOW. I’ve seen the end of it and it absolutely is a mobility scooter and not being able to wipe your own butt.
I think it’s the same emotionally. I think it’s the same with a vocation. It’s the same in your profession, even. It’s the same in anything worth doing.
Avoid all pain and you end up curled up on the floor, in the fetal position, refusing to be or do anything. Love family? They can hurt you. Love pets? They will hurt you, if nothing else when they die. Make friends? they can hurt you in a million ways. Do something you love? It can hurt you. Do something for a living? Even that can hurt you, when you’re criticized/undervalued, lose your job.
Life is pain, highness. Anyone who tells you different is trying to sell you something. Pain is a spectacularly broad-spectrum deterrent. If you allow it, it will deter you from life. You’ll be nothing and do nothing.
Choose your bets. As Heinlein said, the game is rigged, but if you don’t bet you can’t win.
And if you have a vocation, you don’t even have that much choice. You’ll bet on that number and that color till the end of time, because you have to. All you can do is strategize how to detach the inevitable pain from your daily routine and work. (And I really hope regular hours and actions does that.)
Because life is pain. The only way to completely avoid suffering is not to live. By which I don’t even mean commit suicide. I mean, be like a plant. Though, as the Arrogant Worms remind us, even the vegetables can scream. And I suspect knowing you wasted yourself is the biggest of all sufferings.
So, go forward. Yeah, it will hurt. But the alternative is dying.
Twist, turn, find ways to do things so that it softens the blow or at least separates it from what you must — MUST — do to live.
And by all means, don’t go shoving your hands in wood chippers.
But you can’t be a zombie. And so you must live, pain and all.
If you’re very lucky — I’ve been a few times — sometimes with the pain comes ineffable sweetness, a sense of a job well done. And if you’re very very lucky — I was — there will be someone there to soften your path, to hold you when you can’t stand on your own, to help you every step forward: your spouse, your relatives, or even just the feeling of someone watching over you.
Go. Don’t be afraid. Life is pain. But there is joy too. And there is learning and growing. The world is vast, time is infinite. And it’s yours. What’s a little pain in comparison with that?
Pay the price and place your bets.