Saturday, 20 November 2010

One in Fifty Thousand

[Author's note:  One of the biggest questions facing believers is the problem of pain and suffering.  There are no easy glib answers to this question.  It is clear that on a planet of fixed size, if there is birth there has to be death to make room.  But what if all pain were removed and death was always painless?  I have tried to imagine what this would be like in the following story ..]

One in fifty thousand is not much to worry about.  It is hardly worth concerning yourself when you go to sleep that one in fifty thousand will not wake up the next day, and you could be one of them.  One in fifty thousand will go to sleep, content and happy and painless, and will be carried off by the silent swathe that passes over the slumbering.  One in fifty-one thousand one hundred and thirty-five, to be precise, the statisticians have calculated.  It is so curious an exactitude that one may expect to live, on average for precisely threescore years and ten, just as it has been decreed in scripture, that many have seen this as evidence of the existence of God.    But the timing of the swathe for each individual has no pattern or apparent purpose; it favours not age over youth.  One may live to seventy and then expect to live another seventy.  One in sixteen may live to two-hundred and eighty, still looking the same as when they were twenty-one, and still expect to live another seventy.
We are supposed not to worry about this.  I am one-hundred and eighty-nine years old, and I am gazing at the sleeping form of my wife, Kate, a mere child of thirty-seven, and I am worried.  She is so beautiful and I love her so much it hurts.  It’s not supposed to hurt, but how can I not hurt and worry that she will be swept away without warning this night; that she will be taken from me just like the four before her?  Why not me first for a change?  I am supposed not to mind, for it says in scripture:

Husbands love your wives; wives love your husbands, but not to excess.  Be happy for them when they are taken away to greater rewards.  Do not mourn your loss, you who are widowed; your body remains unblemished and beautiful - you will find another partner who will appreciate the wisdom of your years that is contained in your soul but which leaves your body unmarked.

I dare not tell Kate how much I love her.  Such levels of love are unhealthy – they would start to poison her and she could lose her mind as I surely am losing mine.  In our lovemaking tonight, as in all other nights, I experienced a few fleeting seconds of exquisitely delicious pain at the apex of the act of union, and only then did I feel real – the wonderful balance of pain and ecstasy that is a release from the numbness of my meaningless existence.   I have wished many times that the end to lovemaking would bring death to both of us, in each other’s arms; such a release from the endless bearing of children, painless for the mother, but with each the potential to bring heartbreak when they are as likely as not to be swept away before you, as eight of my seventeen already have been.
I have identified that pain is the element that is missing, and I long for it.  That is why I say I am losing my mind.  I long for pain. I long for it to bring meaning.   And yet we all seem blessed (or rather cursed) with the inability to feel pain – the inability to feel real.  I try to re-create pain on my own; in the kitchen I slash a knife uselessly across my wrist, feel the slight sting, watch a few drops of blood come out, before, in a few seconds, the wound heals up, leaving no mark, and the stinging abates leaving only the mental torture that is inside my head.  If only it would leave a permanent mark, a scar so I could say on such and such a day I cut myself here to stop myself going mad.  But my wrist is as unblemished as it was a few moments ago – there are no visible memorials to map out my struggle.
 Why is it that we do not feel pain, as animals do?  Why is it that our existence is reduced to one of bland shallowness?  Some have said it is our kind Deity who cannot bear to watch His children suffer pain.  That He protects us from pain and disease, from age and infirmity because He wants our happiness, our joy, our gratitude.   Do I seem ungrateful?  I do not believe so, because I cannot believe such a Deity exists, for if He does, he cannot be good – more a sadistic monster who laughs at my torment and my expectation that it could continue like this for another seventy years.  No, such a Deity is not kind at all.  Would that the Deity would not be so cowardly as to protect us from pain, but would come down and live among us; stand alongside us in that pain.  That kind of God is one I could believe in.  But not the wimp and coward we are told to worship.  I reject such notions – there has to be a natural explanation of why we are preserved till we die, and why we die in exactly the pattern of the decay of  radioactive atoms.
I look again at Kate’s sleeping form beside me.  My arm is draped over her and I feel the perfect, womanly shape, and the smooth, regular rise and fall of her breast as she sleeps.  I want so much to shake her awake – to say don’t go there where you could be swept away like the other four.  Don’t leave me, please don’t leave me I cannot bear to lose yet another.  But she does not know what it is I’m going through – she does not appear to suffer internally as I do.  I shall not poison her mind and allow her to plunge into my turmoil.
I cannot continue any longer, Godless and hopeless. An end to life is all I want; not easy to achieve given the uncanny robustness of my body.  I get up from the bed, and pack a rucksack with heavy rocks from the garden. 
I now stand on the bridge over the river; the rocks will weigh me down, and ensure I don’t return to the top before my breathing has ceased.  I take one last look round, on the bridge top, at this pointless world, then launch myself towards the water, ready to embrace the nothingness that surely follows …
Suddenly I am awake.  My pulse is racing and there is a slight sweat on my forehead.  The nightmare is over, but as the pain starts to take hold, jabbing its vile spikes all over me, I know it is time for the next dose of morphine.  The nurse comes and administers the temporary relief.  Kate sits on my bed, holding my hand.  As the pain subsides, I gaze upon her face, no longer flawless as in her youth, but lined with the ever-advancing edge of age.  I don’t care – I can still see all her loveliness, and there is no reason why I should not tell her.  I put my arm around her waist and feel her warmth.  Our eyes gaze at each other and three unspoken words pass from one to the other.  In a few days’ time (it cannot surely be more than that) she is going to lose me, and she is ready.


Steve said...

The flip-side to pain is peace. So if there were an absence of pain, how would one identify peace?

If there were no such extremes of feeling (or any feelings within this spectrum at all) would humanity exist?

Iain said...

Steve: Yes, I think that covers a lot of what I was trying to say - as opposed to extremes of feeling you have a meaningless, shallow, bland existence that, for the speaker in the piece triggers the onset of madness.

But I actually think it's far more complex than that. The impulse to self-harm is to provide a distraction from mental pain by inducing physical pain. The latter is easier to understand than the former, and hence easier to bear.

I think it's something we all do to an extent. Many people (self included) when in a tense or anxious situation over which they have little control will, for example bite their lips, sometimes so hard that it hurts, or draws blood - and in the same way, the physical pain gives you something to focus on rather than the anxiety-inducing situation that is the root cause.