Thursday, December 07, 2006

On Pain

Pain is a difficult thing to understand. Here I am speaking of physical pain, the sensation that comes from a part of the body being in some way damaged. We all experience pain in some way, it is perhaps the most universal of human experiences: we all get headaches, we all get scratches and bruises, most of us will break bones or accidently slice open our flesh in our lifetimes. Most of us will face at least one variety of painful illness.

But while we all experience pain, it remains the most private of human sensations. It is impossible to empathize with pain. We might feel an authentic sorrow of our own at seeing another’s sadness, but while we can feel pity or compassion for another’s pain, we cannot share the sensation. Pain is totally internal to the body of the person who feels it.

Elaine Scarry, in her seminal book The Body in Pain, argues that to experience pain is to experience the end of the world. Her contention is that the opposite of pain is not pleasure, but creation. Pain is destruction. Pain unmakes the body and the mind, drives one beyond one’s ability to speak or comprehend the world, traps one within the fabric of the body and then tears that body apart. To be in pain is to lose all agency, all power, all the things that make one a person. This is why pain is the tool of torture, for its power to break consciousness and even individual identity into tiny little scattered pieces.

Of course, this argument cannot be applied to all pain. Talal Asad (in Formations of the Secular, for those who care) has criticized Scarry’s analysis because it disregards the fact that humans do have some agency in how they bear pain. Not all pain is culturally or socially equivalent. For example, he says, childbirth is painful, but for many women the experience of pain in that context is deeply meaningful, something that does not annihilate the world but in fact creates it. Similarly, we may look at the use of pain in religious rituals, for example during the celebrations in the month of Muharram, or pain endured by soldiers in war. The sensation may itself be everything Scarry says, but the individuals ability to endure it gives the pain a purpose, and may become a formative part of how a person understands their own nature and their place in the world.

Pain is a huge part of hockey, both the infliction of pain and the bearing of that pain. Generally speaking, I think most people in the hockey world would support Asad’s view over Scarry’s. Part of success in the game is the ability to bear pain habitually, and even enjoy it under certain circumstances. Hockey players make their pain meaningful for the community by the way they endure it, by coming back to the game with stitches and pins in their bodies, by undergoing surgery after surgery and getting back on the ice as fast as possible, carrying scars and prepared to acquire more. Because then it isn’t just pain, but a symbol: of devotion to the game, to the team, to the fans, and also of the inner value of the player, those intangible qualities so valued in the sport: ‘heart’ or ‘grit’. Pain is immensely valuable to hockey.

This, perhaps, is part of why the arguments over fighting and checking are so contentious. Fans who appreciate the role of violence in the game are not just interested in the entertainment value of it, but in the symbolic value of it. I think, on some level, that the infliction of pain is not so meaningful, either for fans or for players, as the enduring of pain, as this is what links the physical game on the ice to all the metaphysical ideas we have about what it means: to bear pain stoically is a marker of toughness, of tenacity, of strength, of passion. We are moved by nothing in hockey so much as the player who suffers much pain and yet returns to the game. The players who give pain well are sometimes admired, but those who take it well are beloved.

But there are always those players whose bodies cannot bear the pain they have experienced. There are many who do not come back from their pain, or who come back as different people than they were. Their pain is not meaningful for the community, because it calls into question the entire ethic of the game. We look away from them, those that have lost their careers, those who have been shattered beyond repair, because to look closely at them would force the hockey world to face an impossible choice. We must declare either that they are too weak to transform their pain into something meaningful, essentially blaming the victims for their injuries, or we must acknowledge that there are in fact varieties of pain inflicted in the course of playing hockey that are meaningless and unendurable, the kind of pain Scarry discusses, pain that exists only in the body of the person who experiences it, pain that is nothing but pain.

For me, this is a personal problem to which I have still not found an effective solution. I understand that players have chosen to face a base level of pain and injury in order to play, and I’m grateful for that, whatever their reasons. It is perhaps a foolish choice, to be willing to sacrifice so much for a game, but I respect them for making it, more than that, I admire them for it. It takes a distinctive kind of will to take a professional responsibility for the infliction and endurance of pain. That said, in my own small strange way, I have come to care very deeply about some of these guys, and I cannot bear seeing them broken. Even though I don’t know them, I like them, I like watching them play and following their careers. Like many hockey fans, I get somehow attached to them as people. Every time I see a really vicious hit or a gratuitously brutal fight, I think: that still body crumpled on the ice, that broken skull or spine or whatever, that blood, that could be anyone. That could be one of ahbabi. That could be some amazing, beautiful game that will now never be played. That could be some good person losing his career. That’s not entertainment, that’s not a sport, that’s just pain.

I think of children riddled with shrapnel in distant wars, and men getting their fingernails ripped out in dirty subterranean rooms, and women getting slammed against walls by drunken husbands, and commuters being beaten in alleys for their wallets, and intractable diseases eating through bodies. Perhaps up to a certain point pain can have a meaning and a purpose, but there’s a barely perceptible line somewhere, and once it’s crossed, pain is pain is pain: mute, irrational, meaningless, the end of the world.

I realize this is not entirely a rational position. I have reasoned arguments to make about hockey violence, and time and fate allowing I will make them someday. Right now, I don’t know where the line should be drawn, I don’t know how you preserve the tactical violence and the code of honor and the ‘clean’ fighting and excise the really lethal, cruel stuff, which is, I believe, what most people in the hockey world would like to do. I don’t know if it can be done. But I wanted to take a bit of space to explain how I feel about the whole subject of violence, why I cannot bring myself to be one of those gung-ho, old-school the-more-bashing-the-better hockey fans. I’m sorry if this means I lose my hockey community membership card, I’m sorry if it makes me weak, but it genuinely scares me to see the frequency with which serious harm comes to hockey players. The severe injuries that come from inevitable accidents are more than enough danger for me without these pervasive clean(ish)-but-deliberately-crippling checks or the beat-down-on-an-unwilling-opponent-to-make-a-point fights.

I recognize that to remove pain from hockey would strip the game of a piece of its soul, but at the same time, to quote hockey’s most famous cliché, I don’t want anyone to get hurt. Really hurt. Permanently hurt. I want to believe that at the end of the evening, everyone leaves the rink more or less intact, perhaps sore and bruised, perhaps with a few stitches, but otherwise as happy and healthy as they choose to be. Not just most of the time, not just the lucky ones, but everyone, always. That won’t always to be true, it’s the cruel nature of the game, but I think maybe I would be happy if I could believe that everyone in hockey- players, coaches, fans, commentators, writers, everybody- wished for that same result, if I could believe that we are all acting in good faith, doing whatever is within our power to contain the pain within the fragile boundaries of the meaningful.


Robert L said...

Pain is watching David Aebischer flop like a seal in a greasebowl trying to stop a puck!

E said...

you must have led a truly charmed life...

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