The Stoicism of Pain

“A gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a man perfected without trials.” – Lucius Annaeus Seneca


(I have to admit that it does not appear that the young man at the bottom of the painting is not paying attention to Seneca‘s words. It is very odd, and I have never noticed it before.)

I also have to admit that I own a new yet good friend an apology. My friend Zanzibar has been a relentless source of inspiration and information for me for some little bit.  Providing an unending stream of news, philosophy, culture, he also dabbles in the strange alchemy known as tech, which is far beyond anything I can comprehend with the inadequate brain I have been given.

Professor Zanzibar is, among other things, a proponent of Stoicism, and as such, in a heart of trying to help, provided me upon request an article on the Stoic approach to pain. Though the message was sound, I could hear the tender youth in the writer’s ideals, and I immediately took offense not with the message, but the teacher.

“He gained his knowledge of Stoicism from Poison Oak?” I scoffed. “A bad case of Poison Oak can last 6 months. That is not long enough to know if your ideals hold in the face of unrelenting pain.”

Chronic pain teaches you a level of Stoicism that can that can lead to your destruction.

You start out complaining about it, to doctors or concerned friends. Chronic pain is a blight of Biblical proportions. Imagine the worst pain you have experienced, and now imagine that the searing, crushing, burning awful pain won’t go away. Eventually, the futility of wincing at the pain goes away. You plaster a rictus grin on your face and prepare to meet the day, if you can.

No one likes to be around negative people, so you begin to swallow the misery as best you can, holding out the hope that the next prescription or treatment will shut off your pain like a switch. When doctors confide in you that you have reached the limitations of their experience, you lose hope. When they begin to avoid your calls, you get scared.  When being treated as a junkie is a sign that someone hasn’t looked at your file can be maddening. When that person is quickly excused by someone who does know your file, and they speak in calm, soothing tones, you get scared all over again. All of this gets shoved in the bottle until you can barely keep the cork in.

Chronic pain is always there. If someone had shot you, people immediately show concern over your condition, but that level of concern is difficult for anyone to maintain. The first stage of Loss and Grief  when coming to terms with Chronic pain is Isolation, and the chronic nature of the pain seems to be what causes this. It’s like someone is on fire in your living room. Initially, you will exhaust your resources to try to put it out, but when the person is burning week after week, you stop inviting the flaming Burning Man to parties. Not that he would be able to accept the invitation. If the burning has subsided enough to meet the appointment, the sheer effort to stay upbeat in a ‘How you doing?’ world can exhaust him for days.

The LA Times, last year, printed an Op-Ed “How not to say the wrong thing” by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman. It is a good chart to keep on you in the event of a major disaster happening to someone you know. “It works in all kinds of crises — medical, legal, even existential. It’s the ‘Ring Theory’ of kvetching.” The idea would have saved Yôb’s friends a lot of grief. The idea is that, when faced with abject misery, your job is to comfort all the people closer to the situation than you are while sharing your concerns and your own issues with only the people further from the situation than you are. You know, like at Thanksgiving.

The problem is that, for most people, if I can’t bitch to you, what good are you? When the pain never goes away, there is never a chance for you to tell me how awful your day was and your concerns talk a second place because they cannot compare. Mitchell and Webb used comedy to illustrate this:


Your friend list decreases as people fall off. It seems that the only ones who stay are those that carry their own pain. The other centers of the Care Circles gravitate toward one another in an attempt to give the comfort they need as well. Just like the delivery drivers and waitresses of the world count among some of the best tipper, people who know pain are the only ones who can relate to each other.

The goal of the person with chronic conditions have to constantly remind themselves that, when a suggestion is given, it comes from a place of concern, and though the suggestion can be quickly dismissed, it must be done with a gracious attitude in recognition of the spirit in which it was given. Relentless pain can set off the animal centers of the brain as we attempt to fight or flee the affliction, and it takes a calm that can be hard to find to unlearn the language of Pain.

Despite my snarling like an animal in a trap, Professor Z quickly filled my request for an ancient layout program that I had used in school. It was free, it loaded quickly and, within moments, I was staring at Aldus Pagemaker, the root creation program of the printer in training in the early 90’s. Old feelings rushed back into my heart as I looked on a program I had not seen since my youth, and the creative fires kindled quickly.

Upon use, though, I discovered the bicycle’s truism only goes so far and, after 20 years, I no longer had any idea what to do with the program. He had snickered at my request for the program, and asked questions pertaining to why, exactly, I would request such a thing, but he had filled my request, and here I was like a fish on a bicycle.

The last Stage of Grief is one of acceptance, but the problem is that accepting chronic pain doesn’t make it go away. I have had to realize that, just as I have forgotten the program I could make dance 20 years ago, life and all of its experiences change you, molding you and shaping you into the creature that will hopefully survive the next crisis. Even pain can have a function in changing you, even as it wears you away.

The grinding of a polishing wheel wears down a hunk of rock to reveal the polished nature of the gem. I have heard people who do it speak of gem polishing like a sculptor will describe the raw stone intended for a statue. Its beautiful nature lies within, awaiting the will to free it, and while it may involve some polishing, it involves a lot more cutting, breaking and grinding to make a masterpiece. The key is that the grinding has to be guided so that it doesn’t take over completely.

It is in that spirit that I ask my friend to forgive me my brashness and thank you for your patience.

For more information on the Comfort Circle, see:

For the full story of what is going on with us:



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