The Relativity of Pain

I am comforted, oddly, by the possibility that you cannot compare my pain to yours. And, for that reason, cannot prove it insignificant.

-Eula Biss


When grass is cut, it emits chemicals. Green leaf volatiles and oxygenated hydrocarbons mix together to create that fresh cut grass smell. The scent is refreshing and calm, but this release of chemicals is a cry for help when the plants suffer tissue damage. The chemical concoction alerts certain insects to come and eat the smaller ones feasting away on their leaves. There’s no concrete evidence that these plants can feel pain, yet they know when they’re being hurt. These blades are cut, ripped up by small hands, eaten by bugs and dogs and cows. They have no defense.


The third time I broke a bone, I fractured the growth plate. Cracked. Ruptured. Shattered. The doctor told me I was being brave. What else could I be? At nine, I couldn’t do anything but stare at my twisted wrist. Every touch from my doctor agonizing. The padding slithered around my arm, each layer of wet cast mold clung. A purple cast for purple skin.


There are many studies that show animals feel emotional pain more than physical pain, will even choose the latter. In just one study, a mother rat walked across an electric grid 58 times to bring her babies back to their nest, getting shocked with each step.


My father died when he was 39. The funeral was held at our church. My father was cremated, so he had no casket. There was only a blueish grey marble box which looked too small to hold him centered on a table at the front of the room. The church had always taught me that suicide was a sin, yet there we were. Celebrating the life of Mark Perrin. Over the years I’ve wondered if the pain of a bullet equates the pain of an unhappy life. Either way, it doesn’t matter. Pain cancelled out pain.


Pain:  /peIn—From the Latin “poena”

  1. n. “Punishment; penalty; suffering or loss inflicted for a crime or offence.”
  2. v. “To take pains or trouble; to exert oneself with care and attention; to endeavor or strive for a particular result.

I used to think pain was only our suffering, something we received. But pain is no longer the consequence, it is the action. We take pains—they are ours. We give them homes with hardwood floors and blue shutters. We let them grow within us until they give us our desired consequence. No pain, no gain.


The doctor said four to six weeks for my wrist to completely heal. At school my friends signed my cast and bombarded me with questions.

How did you do it? Did you cry? How bad did it hurt?

How bad? I didn’t know how to explain it. I’ve never understood comparisons of pain. My broken wrist did not feel like a kick to the shin, or a fall off a bike, or being bitten by a dog. It felt like a broken wrist.


Aristotle viewed pain not as a sensation, but an emotion—a passion of the soul. The soul produces the pain. It comes from within.


NFL icon Doug Flutie’s parents passed away just one hour apart from heart attacks. His father died first, followed by his mother. They had been married for 56 years. The extreme grief and shock of the loss of a loved one can put stress on the heart, causing chest pains, low blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, and can even lead to congestive heart failure. Broken heart syndrome. The emotional pain becomes tangible.


At school, my brother and I were put in grieving classes. We had to talk about our feelings and how we were dealing with things—how we were trying to move on. The teacher gave us a paper with an outline of a person and a list of colors that represented different feelings. Sadness, fear, guilt, anger, jealousy, nervousness, and happiness, but I wanted to color my body pain. She said most children mistake mental pain for physical pain, but there’s no mistaking how my stomach churned and eyes burned when I saw his empty parking spot in the driveway.


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