[The following passage is from Paul Brand’s Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants, 1988. The son of English missionaries working in India, Brand went on to become a surgeon who developed new, innovative techniques for hand surgery. He also revolutionized our understanding of leprosy: the disfigurement and the loss of limbs is caused by the lack of respect for the body that results from the condition of painlessness (which is caused by the disease) and not because the disease causes the flesh to become “non-healing” or to change in any way.]
My esteem for pain runs so counter to the common attitude that I sometimes feel like a subversive, especially in modern Western countries. On my travels I have observed an ironic law of reversal at work: as a society gains the ability to limit suffering, it loses the ability to cope with what suffering remains. (It is the philosophers, theologians, and writers of the affluent West, not the Third World, who worry obsessively about “the problem of pain,” and point an accusing finger at God.)
Certainly, the “less advanced” societies do not fear physical pain as much. I have watched Ethiopians sit calmly, with no anesthetic, as a dentist works his forceps back and forth around a decaying tooth. Women in Africa often deliver babies without the use of drugs and with no sign of fear or anxiety. These traditional cultures may lack modern analgesics, but the beliefs and family support systems built into everyday life help equip individuals to cope with pain. The average villager knows suffering well, expects it, and accepts it as an unavoidable challenge of life. In a remarkable way the people of India have learned to control pain at the level of the mind and spirit, and have developed endurance that we in the West find hard to understand. Westerners, in contrast, tend to view suffering as an injustice or failure, an infringement on their guaranteed right to happiness.
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