Pain is the champion of the ethical doctrine that feeling is the only criterion for what is good: sensationalism.
In the world of things that demand to be felt, pain and its politics lives the creepiest. The evidentiality of pain’s matchless creepiness is in its ability to brilliantly vary the way it is felt, an act which in so many cases leaves its definition and treatment in the heavily guarded realms of The Collatz Conjecture.
My favorite aunt was the first body of water I knew whose surface never rippled. She often wore a smile that was always in harmony with her lip rouge—I later found it to be a façade and it didn’t do any good to my young heart—whose sunniness blinded everyone from the waves that lived within and grew slowly, slowly into a head of state whose harsh policies quickly weathered institution after institution—her systems—and left tough questions hanging like daggers in the air regarding the state of the head.
I was still tender when I first saw the ugly anatomy of pain at her bedside: her fair beautiful face transforming into a pale blue origami folding in front of my eyes, and the tissues on her face battle worn, too weak to hold back those irrational needs of the commander-in-chief of things that endlessly demand to be felt, to be spoken of, to be seen, and not to be papered over with some synthetic smiles.
Pain is a peerless scholar. It has a perfect grip of the anatomies and physiologies of things with the capacity to acknowledge its presence and crown it the zeitgeist of their entire existence. It has split personality—short or long term, stays in a place or spreads around the body like oil on water—and only lives for its politics of demanding to be felt and nothing more.
I always feel I carry enough air in me, enough air that would take a lot of beating by life—through pain, at least—to be knocked out of me. This feeling, however, comes often with the knowledge of a big, big burden: the burden of breathing: the endless lurking of my mortality like a lost child in the mazy network of streets that is my head whistling each time the restless, servile nociceptors happen on a tissue torn by pain in its undying obsession to drive home its sensationalist school of thought.
I have a well-proportioned body, an athletic build that accompanied my early transition to adolescence. Almost always healthy, active, and with the ability to perform in sporting activities within my reach, I was certain that I would end up in the world of athletics. But now, it annoys me whenever I look back and remember how naïve I was, how I couldn’t see the correlation between the future and that fated ball that fell into a barrel of used oil and became so slippery that in my haste, I aimed it at a teammate without thoroughly wiping it, and saw it slip out of my hands and onto the feet of my opponent who made a quick dash and buried it at the back of the net in the dying minutes of a crucial inter-street football match—pain. And because it always wants to be felt, it started to work on my healthy metatarsals and then, on my left knee. And after a regular stretch for a practice ball turned awkward and drove my right kneecap close to my calf, my athletic dreams headed home, southwards.
I started struggling to do basic athletes’ stuff with the consistency that will be required of a professional because pain desperately needed me to understand its politics. I stopped dreaming, too, and started adjusting to routines that would put my overactive nociceptors out of their ugly job temporarily, at least. Now, what is left of that teenage dream is a physically fit body preserved by an awkward in-between I and pain carved out that people would happen on—in those fleeting moments my home training takes naps and I let vanity loose in displaying my taut abdominal muscles—and inadvertently lower their jaws, ladies especially. But I look at my body sometimes—through the mirrors that are those ladies’ lowered jaws—and remember those tender unlived dreams of life in the energy driven world of athletics and what I see is an inner city garden wall painted by Michelangelo: please, remind me again how waste is defined. Down, and burdened with the knowledge of the uselessness of will-power when trapped in the marshy geographies of pain, I live everyday like a beaten god.
I have learnt from events that painkillers are mercenaries that only help us win our less significant battles against pain. I think those moments we break free from pain is simply pain doing pain things: buying time and working itself on to the right platform to launch an all-out offensive—a war it will never lose no matter how long or how hard we fight.
Of all the mercenaries we employ in our battles with pain, words are the most powerful. Rudyard Kipling, speaking to the Royal College of Surgeons in London, 1923, stated that: “words, of course, are the most powerful drugs used by mankind.” Kipling knew the unmatched healing and liberating power of words—their ability to free us from the stranglehold of oppression and annihilation of pain and its catalysts and executorships broadcasted like seeds on every corner of the earth.
Words can change people’s thinking and feeling and push them to do things they would never have dreamt of doing. The foot soldiers of pain—its catalysts and executorships—know this and employ words through propagandas to advance those negative far-reaching policies of pain—silent pain, mostly—and censorships to control what people see, read and hear to ensure they remain ignorant of the pain they live in and with. And even when they are aware—like in the country I come from—they gradually learn to live with it: the untold story of our normalization of life and living in oppression and near-complete annihilation.
It saddens me that silent pain walks around with a smooth behind, that it hasn’t been thrashed enough despite its unhidden noxiousness.
My memories and stories of childhood often begin with the smooth arrival and very, very painful fleeting departure of my beloved sister, Ifeoma—for she came carrying my mother’s signature smile, a smile with the powers to capture a heart that has grown into granite, work it and leave it melting like a bar of chocolate left under the sun.
It started with pain coming uninvited, carving a canyon through little Ifeoma’s heart, robbing her of her essence and leaving everyone shattered. We grieved. But I think my father managed to forget how to take heart despite the tough lessons of losing his mother deep in childhood, and then his father at young adulthood. This left him trapped in the net of silent pain whose ugly image was ever present in his eyes, till late in my teens when my obsession with stories would push me into getting him to relive those memories of Ifeoma’s hasty departure, and the dam in his heart broke, and grief poured out in the guise of liberated water from his eyes: silent pain was gone. That event, evergreen in my memory, was my first experience of the unmatched healing power of words.
How do you numb the pain in a body that hurts everywhere? Since independence, Nigeria has lived all forms of acute pain—somatic, visceral, referred—and has slowly, slowly slipped into chronic pain, thanks to bad leadership, divisions along ethnic and religious lines, and an endless growing population of people with intelligence near the borderline. So how do you get humans—a majority—whose mathematical skill isn’t beyond the knowledge of the formula for finding the circumference of their stomachs to understand the complex politics of pain? It will take more than a dismemberment surgically executed to numb Nigeria’s pain—because Nigeria’s pain isn’t just socio-political, but psychological too, and we understand how extraordinarily tricky the task of dealing with the demons that dwell in the head is—but that would make a very brilliant start, regardless.
I have never thought of running away from pain, but the sun that rises with each breaking of the day seems to speak a particular word in a familiar, impassioned tone whenever I step out and it kisses my skin: run! Run. But can we really escape pain? I do not believe so. Running is never a means to an end to pain—for pain has no end—but an escape to a different strain of pain, I think, a bearable one that is not too eager to eat you and your dreams up at once. For when we leave home, there will always be that need to look back, to remember what we left behind and what made us leave—things with the potential to make us hurt even more. But, still, I may have to consider running someday for this jalopy I call home has lost track and waded too deep into the wild that the tracks would have grown too bushy by the time it finds its way back—if ever it would. I am not the strongest of believers in this embarrassment of lattices whose mucilages have long lost their adhesive will, and I doubt I ever would be. But running is that busy road that has been staring me deep in the face, a road that I have never been more afraid that I would have to take someday, perhaps.
About Frank Eze:
Academic, poet and essayist, Frank Eze’s works have appeared in Praxis, Gnarled Oak, Antarctica Journal, Brittle Paper, Scarlet Leaf Review, Lunaris Review, Kalahari Review and elsewhere. He writes from Eastern Nigeria.