I Suffer, Therefore I Am

Let me complete this phrase: I suffer, therefore I am…a rather useless, self-absorbed asshole. Which officially makes me middle class. Well it was bound to happen one day, given my relentless pursuit of cultural capital. Before I continue, I must issue this friendly warning: I know that you like me best when I am angry and fuming—in fact I have statistical proof of this preference—but today I am feeling a little philosophical, not to mention sore. It’s okay; we can still have fun. 

Right now I am sitting on my balance ball, typing this post on an ergonomic keyboard, using a touch pad instead of a mouse, to avoid aggravating the tendonitis in my wrists. I am rewarded with a constant dull aching that extends from hands to forearms. At the same time, I am struggling to keep my spine straight and my shoulders pulled down—away from my ears, as they say in yoga—to alleviate the pain in my back. It’s no use. My recurring upper rhomboid injury, which was ultimately caused by my deformed feet (as explained in the post called ‘Disaster Back’), can never really be cured. It can, however, be managed with daily physio and stretching, activities I let slide during the Xmas holidays, when I spent most of my time baking and cooking while standing up in the kitchen, wearing depends lady underpants and fluffy socks. I now cannot overcome the stiffness, cracking, and uneveness in my back, although I have resumed my regime of hockey stick twisting, morning man shaking, foam roller moaning, and angel wing walling. Don’t get too excited, for these activities are far less erotic than they sound. Obviously I need my skilled athletic therapist to put his hands on me again. In the worst way. 

On the bright side, this douleur has returned my attention to the body, ostensibly the main theme of the FFG blog. Sometimes I get distracted by literature and/or outbursts of profanity. But not this week. You will be happy to hear that I regularly ponder cultural experiences of suffering. I recently consulted the syllabus that one of my lady professor friends sent me, outlining how western European people imagined, feared, treated, and felt about pain between 1600 and 1800. Shortly after reading it, I settled down on the leather sofa to watch TV with a plate of warm roast chicken and root veggies on my lap. You see, my man had cancelled multiple date nights so that he could play poker all week. Since I am entirely supportive of his leisure pursuits, I would not even think of complaining about that. Instead, I took advantage of the opportunity to flick the channels away from Sportsnet until I saw something both utterly horrible and completely compelling. The screen seemed to show a group of chubby inmates wearing matching prison garb, crying as they ran on a torture device while stony faced guards threatened them. You guessed right. It was a popular program called The Biggest Loser. I had never watched it before.

 

This show shed light on our current moral economy of pain. Basically, the bad lazy people on TV had indulged in physical pleasure, for years on end. Realizing their error, they had volunteered—!—to enter a segregated fat camp, where they would be punished and humiliated, but ultimately emerge as better individuals; indeed, this experience would produce pleasure by allowing them to realize and finally become their authentic selves. [Please note that authentic selves are always fit, self-critical, moderate, obedient, chaste, goal-oriented, and confident]. Yet the pain and discipline necessary to enact this transformation would not be hidden away in an actual prison complex. Rather the spectacle would be televised, and we, as presumably less fatly self-indulgent viewers, could relish viewing the inmates/penitents weep, moan, kneel, beg, grovel, and be judged while working out. [Yikes! No wonder some people fear the gym.] Still in an historical frame of mind, this vision reminded me of the early modern period, when punishment was often public. A sharp-tongued woman, for instance, might be put in the stocks, adorned with a sign declaring ‘I am a scold,’ and possibly forced to wear a device that prevented her from speaking. Anyone who passed this display could hurl taunts at her, along with rotten fruit, feces, or worse. In the past, this bit of interactive theatre portrayed the power of legal authorities and served as a warning to others while teaching the sinner a lesson. In contrast, The Biggest Loser is a theoretically voluntary exercise whereby weak people become stronger by both experiencing and accepting pain. 

Pain is often associated with self-improvement these days. Those who are afflicted with cancer and survive are represented as heroic, inspiring hope as well as such athletic feats as walking and running. What’s more, encounters with physical pain and suffering, or with near death experiences, are assumed to bring us closer to the truth. We suddenly realize what is important. Hint: it is always family. Sometimes also friends. This link between pain and truth is not new. During the early modern period, rape victims could be questioned while their thumbscrews were tightened, because it was thought impossible for them to fabricate stories when in pain. Unmarried pregnant women would be urged to reveal the father of their child during the throes of labour because such agony could only reveal the truth. And hopefully that truth would shift financial responsibility from the local coffers to a guilty individual. Today pain is still related to truthfulness, but it is also considered character building, necessary in order to be a fully functioning and properly gendered adult. In my opinion, the real grounds for some people being against caesareans on demand—there is a debate about whether or not pregnant women should choose caesarean sections even when surgery is not medically indicated—is informed by the idea that such women are selfishly seeking to circumvent labour pain, and thus to avoid being women and all the terrible sensations that that gendered subject position requires. 

Now it’s time for me to get opinionated. Oh did I do that already? Ahem. Clearly this longlasting historical conflation between physical suffering and authenticity is hogwash. Freud got it right—again—when he linked the discomfort of illness with narcissism, because invalids must turn their energy inwards in pursuit of self-preservation. This week I sure thought a lot about myself, did yoga instead of course prep, and bought new expensive fluffy bath towels, not to mention premium scotch, to make myself feel better. It sorta worked. In any case, pain is differently experienced and interpreted; it is always historically and culturally specific, but does not necessarily, or even usually, make anyone a better person. Nor should the avoidance of pain be considered a form of self-improvement. I still remember my childhood shock at the comfort demanded by the middle class students at my highschool. Identified as a ‘special’ student, I was bused in from a poor area to a wealthy part of town in order to take advanced classes with other extra smart kids. Turns out that most of my colleagues were not insanely intelligent; they were just privileged (the two qualities are often confused). During my first few months in this new social space, I was dumbstruck as fellow fourteen year olds constantly put sweaters on and then took them back off, dreaded getting wet in the rain, changed into indoor shoes, and munched on sugary snacks to keep the buzz going throughout the day. Raised with the motto ‘suck it up you useless shit head,’ these comfort-seeking actions had never occured to me before. I literally had a different body. Even though I am now skilled in various forms of self-care—more on this Foucauldian topic later—I continue to associate such actions with a learned class identity, not health or hygiene or whatever bullshit excuses have subsequently been attached to them.  

Well then. How do you like them apples? To lighten the mood, I will briefly elaborate on even more examples of my recent pain, in this case caused by my cat who currently goes by the name Muffalo, as in a mini buffalo who is fluffy like Mark Ruffalo. Always finding new ways of torturing me in the morning, this week she sprang from the headboard, doing a cannonball onto my sleeping stomach. I sat bolt upright and made a loud ‘oooff’ sound. A few days later, I wrenched to my side and shouted ‘aaaggg’ after touching something wet and sticky with my hand. It was a semi-cold vomit log. Right beside me in the bed. At 4 am, I had heard the mighty Muffalo wretching, and had flung her off the bed, shoving her ass onto the hardwood floor. Later, she had vengefully crept back and deposited her hair-weiner-present near my body. When I reported these events to my ‘I-can-sleep-through-anything (especially my alarm) partner,’ I worried about what Muffalo might have in store for me the following morning. ‘What worse thing can she possibly do?’ I mused aloud. ‘Oh I know. Tomorrow she will probably shit in my mouth.’ Peals of laughter issued from my half-awake, poker drowsy, sleep deprived partner, helping him to get up and evade job termination. Well, at least my infernal suffering did someone some good.

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