Monday, September 21, 2009

Beg Like a Pirate

On a calm and sunny autumn Monday, the old pirate awoke in his berth on his anchored derelict vessel with the usual fierce rum-induced hangover. He rowed himself ashore in his little dink, pirated a spot for it at a private dock, took the bus downtown to the Social Security office, hobbled up to the counter on his peg leg, thrust forward his arm-hook, glared at the clerk with his remaining eyeball, and said: "Arr! I want my disability compensation!"

To which you might say, "What?! Why should we devote scarce public resources to the support of, of all people, a pirate? Sure, he lacks stereoscopic vision and is missing the odd appendage, but he could still sober up long enough to do some pillaging, and, with the help of a certain blue pill, even some raping. Even if that proves to be too much for him, he can still stuff ships into bottles for the tourist souvenir shops."

Traditionally, mutinous dogs who espouse such notions would be lashed to the mainmast and given fifty strokes with the cat o' nine tails. However, in the prevailing sadomasochistic political climate, neither the physical pain nor the public humiliation of corporal punishment can be guaranteed to have the expected salutary effect on morale. In fact, the scurvy perverts might find the experience enriching, blogging about it, posting tantalizingly fuzzy cell phone videos of their flogging on YouTube, and auctioning their bloodied shirts on Ebay. No, they would have to be made to walk the plank, or, if the sea is calm, swing from the yard-arm, thus saving a bullet.

The pirate's claim for disability compensation rests on a clinical diagnosis of chronic pain. The idea of honest work can be observed to make his phantom limbs twitch. Also, he suffers from a possibly false but nevertheless emotionally distressing memory of being sexually assaulted by his parrot. The Social Security check would be helpful, of course, but, beyond that, he craves recognition. He would like to regularly see a neurologist, a psychiatrist and an acupuncturist. He feels that there must be a popular syndrome that accounts his unique condition perfectly. He has correctly surmised that pain and suffering are this society's most important form of social capital, more important than wealth or achievement.

When Bill Clinton, in 1992, spoke the words "People are hurting all over this country. You can see the pain in their faces, the hurt in their voices," which he later synthesized into the memorable and mantra-like "I feel your pain," he tapped into something rather powerful that had been gestating in the popular subconscious for some time. In effect, he put into circulation a new coin of the realm. It is wonderful to have a leader who feels your pain! Of course, you had to have pain for him to feel, so you went out and got yourself some. How you got it didn't much matter. Hard work and heroic self-sacrifice were the best, but in the end it didn't matter whether it was through overwork, overexercise, substance abuse, overeating, self-abuse - almost any sort of abuse gained you admission to a nationwide orgy of shameless public blubbering about one's pain.

Beyond a superficial sense of physical well-being, how we feel about ourselves and the world is mediated and conditioned by our culture. In the richer cultures, the feelings are highly refined, and their expressions are couched in complex, culturally specific terms. This creates a problem for an inclusive, multicultural society, because refined feelings, between two mutually unintelligible cultures, seem idiosyncratic and subjective, and serve to alienate rather than to create common ground. So why not leave the complex feelings of love, sympathy, pride, respect, honor and shame and so forth behind, as so much cultural baggage, and standardize on the simpler feeling of pain? Unlike these other feelings, pain can be made objective, because it is subject to pharmacological effects.

At the National Cathedral of Pain, you confess to pain, you are absolved, and you receive communion in pill form. And so we have a nation that gobbles painkillers. The hardest workers have the biggest bottles of Ibuprofen or Acetaminophen displayed proudly on their desks, and may be abusing oxycodone in private. People as disparate as Rush Limbaugh and Michael Jackson share a predilection for painkillers. The rich have access to prescription medications, while the poor self-medicate with illegal drugs and alcohol.

The interesting thing about pain is that it is not objective it all. There is a fine line between pain and pleasure, and it seems to have a lot to do with whether we sense that physical harm is being caused. That is, pain is really not so bad provided you know that there is nothing wrong with you. On the other hand, if you think that you have caused yourself irreparable harm, then your brain will furnish you with undeniable symptoms of it. For instance, a herniated disk is often benign physically (like a bit of toothpaste pushing against a garden hose), but if you disagree with that, then your brain will cut the blood flow to the surrounding tissues, giving you chronic pain (but still no physiological damage). It is often sufficient to convince yourself that there is nothing physically wrong with you for the pain to subside. This psychological mechanism could very well be behind the strangely increased incidence of chronic back pain in a society that does less back-breaking work than ever before.

A good question to ask, then, is whether people who suffer pain because of their need to be recognized for their suffering, and to feel included, should be compensated for it financially. Perhaps they should be. Doing so might cause us all some additional financial pain. But then Dr. Geithner at the US Treasury Clinic seems perfectly happy to oblige with a script for financial morphine whenever anyone asks for one, and Pharm. D. Bernanke at the Federal Reserve Pharmacy always fills Mr. Geithner's scripts no questions asked. Nobody knows how much financial morphine Dr. Bernanke has left in stock, but let's not ask him any questions about that either. For an economy in hospice care, that is far too painful a question to even think about.

And now for the really hard question: Are you ready and willing to do the backbreaking work that's needed to bring this country around? To make it easier, let's make it multiple-choice: A. Yes; B. No; C. Ouch!


Jacob Gittes said...

very nice one,Dmitri!
I've been thinking about such things myself. My brother and many of his friends are into Triathlons: Ironman types and the smaller ones. I can't stand these events, nor do I like most of the people who participate in them. The sadomasochism! And it's all about the bragging afterward, the self-congratulations, the temporary boost to pride.

Your wider point is well-taken, though.
What happens to a nation of narcissists when things get really bad, and survival is at stake? Will people do the hard-work necessary to grow and harvest food without constant complaining?

I think this nation will soon be literally shell-shocked by the contrast between the kind of pain they brag about, and the effects of real physical and spiritual labor.

Unknown said...

Great article Dmitry! I love your cynicism.


Anonymous said...

Excellent satire. Add to it that a very large percentage of the population is permanently drugged, be it with pharmaceutically provided drugs or with other types. Hey, if you're in constant pain it makes sense to drug yourself, all the time. It provides the much vaunted American value: "security"!

Who but an insane people can believe that there is assurance of anything in life? Assurance, security, safety, blah blah. Those things don't really exist, and they certainly cannot be assured. Nothing can be assured. The future cannot be controlled. The Earth cannot be controlled. Physics can be studied but not changed... etc.

How can you lose the assurance that never existed in the first place?

How can you be genuinely upset that a lie is, in fact, a falsehood, a myth?

Anonymous said...

Neil Lori answers "A" aka Yes. I am ready willing and able to do the hardwork to make our country more self sufficient.

I read that there are over 750,000 people on th waiting list who are trying to get social security disablity money.

We do not need hand outs, but jobs that produce food and products locally.

Neil Lori

Anonymous said...

Yes, it appears that pain has become the new social capital, now that many other forms of capital are disappearing.

On the other hand, especially if you are an executive, teacher, nurse, autoworker, etc. with excellent healthcare plans, then it is a great way to maximize your personal outputs (e.g. money) to inputs (e.g. work) ratio. Even without private medical plans, it also is an excellent denial mechanism - "I wish I could change things, but you know, that sciatica is acting up again". Thankfully there are many pain-free others to pick up the slack. Ouch!

Dale Asberry said...

Scalawag! Ye left out "Aye, matey!"

Anonymous said...

During the Great Depression they built the Empire State Building in under 14 months. That would simply not happen today. People prefer making money through fancy accounting, ponzi schemes, or just having China do the hard work and then selling what they make at a profit.

mitzi said...

Speaking of pain, I had two great-great grandfathers who served in the Confederate army during the American Civil War. One was shot in the hip and permanently crippled (fought after the injury from horseback), but managed to share-crop for the next 40 years anyway. The other was shot in a Very Sensitive Place (though he did father 4 children after the war), and hit in the back by shrapnel while being carried off the field, but asked for a pension in 1907 (also after sharecropping) because of a 40+-year case of diarrhea he picked up in the hospital! I read about these men and do not complain so much. Hopefully I inherited some of their genes.

Yvonne Rowse said...

Yesterday when my pain was chronic I might have agreed with you. Today I seem to have acquired an acute pain in my neck. It will go away in a few days I hope. In the meantime I'm holding my Fungus-the-Bogeyman hotwater bottle against it hoping to relax the pain so that I can pack my bags and catch a train.
My chronic pain (plantar fasciitis) could heal if I could find time to sit with my foot elevated for two or three weeks. Who has that amount of time to not work in the current economic situation? So I carry on, walking everywhere because I have no car, and constantly getting twinges, and more, of pain because limping throws my whole body out of balance. I'm slowly coming to the conclusion that I should 'waste' that time in order to get back to health. I am very grateful that the british NHS means that I can visit a doctor for help without bankrupting myself.
My point, and I do have one, is that we shouldn't get so gung-ho and macho about pain that we don't deal with it and end up being debilitated and end up much less effective. I am aware that there are people who use pain as an excuse not to work but broad and sweeping generalisations do not always help.
That said, I am amused and instructed by your blog. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

And in the context of "the health care system" (a system that does not exist as such, ironically), one should ask why people are getting sick in such large numbers.

Animals aren't normally sick. But if, as Orlov points out ironically, I need an expert to tell me (and to "prove") that I'm sick, then the whole concept of sickness has turned into voodoo.

But let's accept the numbers of sick and drugged people as they are, even if some afflictions are invented... why are so many people sick? Isn't that a problem of the first priority?

A friend was constantly sick, went to a Chinese doctor, the doctor asked him several questions and looked him over, and simply told him that he was going nuts and his body was breaking down because he didn't sleep enough and was eating crap in an irregular fashion. He got better pretty quickly!

Anonymous said...

Have you read the book Healing Back Pain, by John Sarno? Very interesting, and quite relevant to your post.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Yes, I did read Dr. Sarno's book. And I didn't have back pain. And I don't have back pain any more. Well, I do, when I move lots of furniture, or when I bicycle 100 km, but it's the good kind of pain. The human spine is quite a strong organ, it turns out, while the human brain is quite often just a bowl of warm porridge.

Mayberry said...

Ahoy matey! I been breakin' me back since I was but a squeaker, so whatever it takes, bring it on!

"I left the city when just a lad,
times was hard, and no work to be had.
So I went to sea on the "Florabelle". Little did I know, 'twas the ship from hell...."

Kerrick said...

You don't actually have any experience with chronic pain, do you?

Dmitry Orlov said...

Thanks for the ad hominem argument, Kerrick! I hope you are not in too much pain to reason properly.

Yes, I do have experience with chronic pain. No, it is not some sort of badge of honor or right of passage that allows me to discuss the subject.