3510820011_4f558b6dea_zI have been struggling with a painful left knee for a couple weeks. My 5-year-old granddaughter, Aviva, said, “Nonni, I hate pain. Pain is bad.”

I hate pain too, but I explained to her that it wasn’t entirely bad. The most obvious reason, I told Aviva, is that pain gets our attention. It makes us stop doing things that can hurt us. It directs us to help when we need it. It alerts us to trouble.

I didn’t explain to her the reason I have, oddly, found some small value in my painful knee. First, I need to be clear: I am a wimp. I have a low pain threshold, and I dislike even mild discomfort. I don’t even take to being chilly with much equanimity. Struggling with my knee, I found myself surprisingly enervated by its constant aching and periodic sharp stabs. I was exhausted all the time, and really, it was only a 3 or a 4 on a 10-point pain scale. Maybe if it had been more acute I would not see any virtue at all in my pain.

But for me, here is the positive part. I live a very comfortable life. Most of the things that make people crazy–lack of money, inconsiderate partner, chronic illness, dysfunctional kids, disagreeable work, awful commute, incommodious place to live—I have, so far, escaped. Yes, of course, I have my “issues,” my gripes. But they are so minor compared with the issues and gripes of the larger world. So my painful knee was, literally, a sharp reminder that my life can be so easily upended, that unhappiness can come through the door and make itself at home without any regard for what I do; paradise is an impermanent place.

How lucky to have all of this brought into sharp relief with only a fixable knee, but how fortunate it is to be reminded that my life is not comfortable because I am a better, smarter, harder-working person. Mainly, I am a luckier person. Instead of a knee, my pain could so easily come from a long list of more serious problems. One day, it may.

Empathy is informed by experience. It is easier to imagine what someone else is feeling if we, in fact, have felt something similar. It is easy to think my good fortune has a great deal to do with smarts, good planning, regular exercise, healthy diet, perceptive skills—whatever virtues I wish to ascribe to myself. And yes, those surely count. But when I ache, I think they don’t count as much as I want to believe when I don’t ache.

There is another benefit of passing pain. Normally, I do reasonably well in the 65-and-over category. “Really, you are 72. You certainly don’t look it.” Thanks to judicious hair coloring, a recent success at dieting, well-chosen clothes, and good genes, I don’t think I read as “old” to most people over 50. But one bum knee and any hope of a youthful image is shot. I am hobbling. I can’t get up gracefully. I wince when my knee is tweaked. I walk “old.” And I’m thinking about the people I see that I label “old” when they are just as perky and alive inside as I, but some physical glitch has slowed them down. Of course, I know not to judge that book by its cover, but, oops, sometimes I’m guilty.

Happily, I had X-rays the other day. The orthopod told me I had “beautiful knees.” I was more pleased than if she had told me I had flawless skin or a sexy body. I need those knees in a way I have been impervious to previously. And then, better yet, she gave me a cortisone shot. I look forward to a full recovery from looking old, at least in the short term, but I hope I can hold on to the more subtle lessons of pain.

Image from Flickr via.



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  • Marcia August 30, 2014 at 8:11 am

    Such a true story, I am closer to 60 than 50 but I can relate to pain in a specific body part causing you to empathize with the pain of others. Thanks for sharing!