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Quote of the Month: August 2016

by Ellen on July 28th, 2016

“To have great pain is to have certainty; to hear that another person has pain is to have doubt.”
~The Body In Pain, by Elaine Scarry

I’ve just started reading this book after one of my favorite authors recommended it. It’s a fascinating look into the connection between pain, power, voice, and society, and it might become the subject of a book review later this year. It’s a dense, slow read, and I have a lot of complicated thoughts about the author’s views, some of which are compatible with AT and some of which are emphatically NOT (her view that the body and the self are two separate entities, for example). But I was struck by this quote, because I’ve been thinking a lot about pain already from talking with my students.

In the introduction to her book, Scarry says this in the context of the issue of what she calls “the inexpressibility of pain.” Physical pain is a curious experience, because it is undeniably present if you are the one in pain – sometimes to such a degree that it is hard to think of anything else – but it’s also practically impossible to articulate verbally in a way that someone else will truly understand. Nobody else can ever be inside your body, so nobody else can experience your pain. The best we can do is to use analogies to describe the pain and hope that the person listening can empathize.

Doctors know this problem well; it is the reason the dreaded “pain scale” has emerged – rank your pain on a scale of one to ten – how bad is it? This method only describes the intensity of the pain, though, and it is incredibly subjective since it’s based entirely on the patient’s individual pain tolerance. Other scales have been offered which focus on ranking pain based on how much it interferes with your normal activity, which is better – but still, it leaves the asker trying to imagine what it must be like to be in that level of pain. I often ask students to describe their pain, to help me pinpoint possible culprits in their use, and I usually ask more than just intensity. I’ll ask about quality of pain – is it a shooting, acute pain or a dull aching that doesn’t go away? I’ll ask about context – does it pop up more when you do certain activities, or do you notice it go away at any specific times?

For me, this inexpressibility of pain reminds me of the inexpressibility of a lot of AT experiences – I often tell students ‘you might not be able to explain what it feels like; you don’t really have vocabulary for it yet.’ We tend to think in narrative, and so feel compelled to explain our sensations in words, as a story we can tell another person. For this month, I’m thinking about sensations that can’t be explained in story – I encourage you to join me!

Forward and Up! is a Pittsburgh-based private practice offering quality instruction in the Alexander Technique in a positive and supportive environment.

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