The New Study on Pain Killers and Empathy is Giving Me…A Pain

I’m perhaps overly sensitive to the current societal discourse on pain, because it is close to home. I have chronic pain. Or, I’m in it. Let’s just say—pain is me.
So when I read a study saying that pain killers decrease empathy, I get annoyed. No doubt the study will prove to be flawed, unreplicable, like the majority of such health studies. But even if it proves to be right, I just don’t care. That’s because, I know from extensive experience, pain itself does not make you nice.
Pain makes you cranky, miserable, self-engrossed, frightened, and unable to concentrate. Imagine slamming your finger in the car door. Does this flood you with the milk of human kindness? I think not.
Are folks with arthritis or sciatica more like saints or bodhisatvas? I sincerely doubt it. Does breaking your arm make you Mother Teresa? Doesn’t seem to.
I think in part this is because empathy itself is overrated. Empathy is feeling what others feel. A kind of co-dependency or lack of boundaries? Sure, I’m being a bit sarcastic (which ironically is a kind of empathy) but frankly I don’t think my best behavior is based on empathy. It is based on ethics. A ethical code suggests that I follow the golden rule and act towards my fellow humans as I’d like them to act towards me. It doesn’t depend on my feelings—or pain level—of the moment. It is an intention.
I’d rather have a dentist who was drilling my tooth guided by professionalism than empathy. I don’t want the doctor to shriek at my rash, faint at my blood. I want my friends to advise and care—not to feel my feelings with me. In fact, I look to others for perspective, not identification.
I’ve never heard of a woman in labor yelling that she is going off to join the Peace Corps just as soon as this baby gets born. Cursing, yes. Demands for, gasp, pain relief, sure. A bit of blame for those around her who aren’t in labor—certainly. Big time empathy? No.
Without anodynes, I would be unable to work, drive, sleep, exercise, or sit through a movie. I was once a participant in a giant shrine performance and I added my most precious possession to that monument—an ibuprofen. I would take it if it dropped my IQ, shortened my life expectancy, or turned me purple.
I’m also a fan of stronger pain killers. I understand everything that is bad about the over-prescription of opiates but here the conversation makes me downright nervous. I’m not a sociologist, so I can’t really tell what overdose stats really mean. All I know is that the human tendency to addiction doesn’t frighten me personally as much as a puritanical society’s refusal to treat pain. And please don’t tell me to stretch, get rolphed, go to PT, get massage, soak in salts, meditate, do progressive relaxation, and have a good attitude. I do all of these things on a daily or weekly basis. They help, but they don’t substitute for pain medication.
Interestingly, emotional pain seems to work two ways. It can make you self-engrossed, narcissistic, and oblivious. Or, it can make you compassionate, caring, and other directed. Actually, pretty much all of human experience works this way. It’s up to us to choose how we’ll act, day by day, not based on the whims of the moment.
And frankly I’d like to go about each day, with all my flaws and my aspirations, with as little pain as possible.