Inside & Outside of Pain

In Bel Canto, a book I just finished reading last weekend (& loved!), author Ann Patchett, perfectly evokes the power of distraction to alleviate the heavy load of insufferable or chronic pain:

There was a sitting room off of the guest bedroom where the Generals held their meetings and in that room Mr. Hosokawa and General Benjamin played chess for hours at a time. It seemed to be the only thing that took Benjamin’s mind off the pain of the shingles. Since they had crept into his eye they had become infected and the infection had led to conjunctivitis, and now the eye was fiercely red and rimmed with pustules. The more completely he concentrated on chess, the more he was able to push the pain aside. He never forgot it, but during the game he did not live exactly in the center of it.

Haim Bresheeth (2008)

What a concise way of describing it; not living in the center of it. Because it is so true that one can become all-consumed by the gnawing relentlessness of pain. Encumbered by the sheer vastness and seemingly infiniteness of it. As I discovered long ago, there is an almost magical potency that lies within creative activity, a potency that has the capacity to offset the badgering behemoth that is chronic pain.

The flip side is that we can also elevate pain to the status of icon or savior, great doses of prescribed drugs sweeping down from the heights to pacify our agony, to deaden our burning senses. At a recent local exhibit of works by the celebrity artist Damien Hirst, pain – and its accoutrements – was a central theme of the displayed works.

The name Damien Hirst used to conjure up images of a media-savvy, self-congratulating, uber-successful artist. I didn’t understand why he insisted on applying Swarovski crystals onto a large skull painted onto a canvas. I rolled my eyes at the thought of people dropping $20-100,000 for one of his artworks that seemed nothing more than trendy, gaudy, and inaccessible.

Shame on me. I realized how ignorant I was of his process, his messages and his art, when I took a good, slow look around.

Plastic skulls glossed over with multi-hued paint spatterings. Lawn chairs constructed with material that has butterflies printed all over it. A painting of a huge red heart, images of butterflies painted over it. Butterflies, butterflies and yet more butterflies.

And then a series of works took my breath away: Hyper-realist paintings of pills, a rainbow of medications, different sizes and colors, lined up like soldiers on glass shelves. Each of the little tablets has a style all its own. As if they are in a display window, on parade – rather than hidden away in a bathroom cabinet. The reflections are mesmerizing. The pills, so tempting to the eye. Like candies at a candy store. As if to say: Which one shall I choose today? Take a look at a painting called “Pharmaceuticals.”

Damien Hirst, Pharmaceuticals (2005)

Another piece: pills, tiny models of butterflies, a syringe, arranged with a careful haphazardness on a small canvas. The curator has explained some of Hirst’s process and theory to me. I interpret this piece as acknowledging that there some method in the madness of seeking liberation from pain, choosing life over death. We may need meds and injections, but it is the freedom (represented by a butterfly) that we are ultimately searching for.

Both Patchett and Hirst remind me that the search for pain relief can be found both within and outside of ourselves. It is up to each of us to decide which path to take.

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