Pain has often been privileged over other sensations. It has been represented as a somewhat enviable experience, has had something of a heroic career in spiritual literature. Yet in truth, pain is no more and no less profound than any other sensation. Pain offers the same potential for learning as any other experience. In that sense one can simply say that pain...just...is.
I never thought of myself as being particularly tough, but it seemed by ordinary standards that I had a high tolerance for pain. I played an entire season of high school soccer with what I thought was just a nagging pain in my knee; it turned out to be a stress fracture at the top of my tibia. Tape it up and jog it off, champ. My tattoo artist marveled to me that I sat there and read a book while she worked on a seven-plus hour design on my arm; most people couldn't relax enough to concentrate on anything else, she said. It wasn't exactly pleasant, and I had to read several paragraphs over a few times before really taking them in, but hey, you know, mind over matter and all that.
But as I said before, I developed rheumatoid arthritis in my late twenties, and due to my belonging to the twenty percent of people who don't show a positive rheumatoid factor on a blood test, it went untreated as such for three and a half years. By the time an MRI on my hands convinced my doctors to start giving me drugs for it, I was one sad-sack, broken-down, sorry-ass sunnamabitch. I was in constant chronic pain, sometimes acute, oftentimes just like the hum of an appliance in the background. I couldn't sit for more than ten or fifteen minutes without my lower back and knees screaming in protest when I got back up. I couldn't stand for an equal amount of time without an equal response. I couldn't sleep in many positions for long without waking up and having to gingerly shift myself, and the uneven sleep patterns made me feel even more beaten down and worn out. If I took pills to sleep more deeply, I paid for it upon awakening by hardly being able to move. The muscles in my right arm are still slightly smaller and weaker than those in my left because a tendon in my rotator cuff was getting pinched in between two bones, causing me to shift my shoulder forward to relieve the pressure and keep my arm close to my side, trying to only move it from the elbow down if needed. I wore shoes almost all the time because I couldn't stand to walk barefoot, and I had to wear the same pair for a few years because I couldn't stand the discomfort of trying to break a new pair in.
I didn't think about it much at the time, but there was always a sort of back-of-the-mind awareness that one day, I might just have to kill myself rather than go on like this indefinitely. Nothing dramatic, nothing emotional, just an acknowledgement of the brute facts of my existence. I was increasingly unable to let my mind wander beyond the constant attention to my aches and pains. No one seemed to know what was wrong with me. Some of them even whispered behind my back that I was malingering for who knew what reason. Why go on like this?
I guess I was young and healthy enough that medication fortunately brought me back almost completely to normal. But there was no epiphany once I reached that point. No grand, life affirming lesson. Just a crystal-clear awareness of the utter senseless futility of ever trying to be tough. The world will always win. No matter how much you can personally endure, no matter how much farther you can push yourself, there will always be someone else who can tolerate worse for longer. Unless you want to take it to the logical conclusion like those stupid Buddhist monks who set themselves aflame while remaining motionless, you're going to have to turn back at some point and stop chasing after the chimera of redemption, affirmation, accomplishment being found in pain. There's nothing morally or spiritually purifying about it. It just is. Avoid it if you can. I've had friends who put themselves through unnecessary pain and suffering for reasons like that, from BDSM practitioners to MMA fighters who refuse to take aspirin for broken bones, and it just makes me sad for them.