A World Without Pain
January 20, 2020 5:50 PM   Subscribe

It is rare, but there are people who are born without the ability to feel pain. Joanne Cameron has never experience pain, but she is unique in that she also has never experienced the extremes of rage, dread, grief, anxiety, or fear. The hours spent staring into the dark, looping around our own personal grand prix of anxieties, are not a waste of time but a fundamental expression of our humanity. And so on. To be a person is to suffer. But what if our worst feelings are just vestigial garbage? ... Pain is what makes joy, gratitude, mercy, hilarity, and empathy so precious. Unless it isn’t. (SLNYer)
posted by ShooBoo (31 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
 
Wow, that was fascinating. As a human, as a Buddhist, and as a fairly happy go lucky person myself. Everyone else, read this cuz I want to talk about it!
posted by soren_lorensen at 6:52 PM on January 20 [2 favorites]


... i feel like i should find out if I also have the same endocanabinoid gene mutation, because reading this felt uncanny. (I do feel pain though, but it never seemed overwhelming. good enough for me!)
posted by cendawanita at 6:57 PM on January 20 [1 favorite]


”He was the kindest man you’ll ever meet. Every morning he’d wake us with a cup of tea and a carrot from the garden and tell us a poem.” Then he’d accompany Cameron to school, hand in hand and skipping all the way.

I love that so much.
posted by mantecol at 8:27 PM on January 20 [8 favorites]


The idea that any single aspect of what makes us human is definitive has long struck me as kind of stupid. What makes us human is being recognized as such by other humans. It's as idiotically simple and fantastically complicated as that.

Also, just because human brains do respond to differences rather than absolutes does not make joy, gratitude, mercy, hilarity, and empathy any less precious in the absence of pain and suffering.

Also also, suffering is not a contest! There's no objective standard by which anybody else's suffering can be judged. Many people have the ability to experience genuine pain and suffering at levels they would themselves describe as unbearable as a result of circumstances that others would experience as totally normal and relatively benign.

It's been said that life is suffering (though not by Buddha). Personally I prefer not to spend a lot of time hanging out with people who insist on this miserable and rather self-indulgent point of view, and would encourage anybody who subscribes seriously to it to talk themselves out of it before it fucks the rest of their life.

It suffices to accept that no good deed goes unpunished, and do them anyway.
posted by flabdablet at 9:02 PM on January 20 [5 favorites]


MetaFilter: Suffering is not a contest!
posted by mwhybark at 11:29 PM on January 20 [4 favorites]


Previously, this is a fascinating case.
posted by ellieBOA at 2:25 AM on January 21


I wonder whether she'd got something like blindsight for pain-- it's there, but it doesn't get to consciousness. There's no way her early life was that safe.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 4:09 AM on January 21


It's been said that life is suffering (though not by Buddha). Personally I prefer not to spend a lot of time hanging out with people who insist on this miserable and rather self-indulgent point of view, and would encourage anybody who subscribes seriously to it to talk themselves out of it before it fucks the rest of their life.

This is a complete misread of the phrase “life is suffering.” The point of that phrase isn’t to excuse indulgence in misery, it is to find contentment even when bad things inevitably happen to us, understanding that not everything is under our control.

And that is what is so amazing about this woman. She is not walking around pretending bad things don’t happen or putting on a false face of positivity. She knows sorrow, she has experienced it firsthand and found peace nonetheless. Sort of an in-built form of CBT or DBT.
posted by scantee at 4:48 AM on January 21 [5 favorites]


Perhaps we could all be a little more like Jo Cameron: joyful, compassionate, unperturbed by all the nasty, roiling feelings that turn us, from time to time, into goblins.

Don't give them ideas, folks.
And if ever, by some unlucky chance, anything unpleasant should somehow happen, why, there’s always soma to give you a holiday from the facts. And there’s always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering. In the past you could only accomplish these things by making a great effort and after years of hard moral training. Now, you swallow two or three half-gramme tablets, and there you are. Anybody can be virtuous now. You can carry at least half your morality about in a bottle.
posted by zamboni at 5:39 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]


The main takeaway I get from "distilled Buddhism", Stoicism, books on coping with anxiety, CBT etc. is that you can't completely avoid misfortune, pain, grief, etc. Shit happens. But a lot of the worst suffering comes from our reaction to it, aversion to it, and dwelling on it... prolonging it and amplifying its importance.

I mean, when my anxiety is at its worst, I feel like I'm tensing up against someone about to hit me, or something similar. I think the last time someone actually did hit me was 35 years ago and it wasn't that bad.

Anyway, lovely article and I wish I knew a lot of people like Jo.
posted by Foosnark at 5:42 AM on January 21 [4 favorites]


The goal of enlightenment isn't to find personal contentment despite suffering, it's to reduce suffering for all beings. Life is pain, highness, but there's more to it than that: you can't make all the hurt go away, but you can accept that hurt is part of life, and even more: you should devote your life to reducing the amount of pain that others feel.

Jo may be naturally resistant to pain but she used her ability to rise above pain to help others feel less pain by being compassionate and caring. We can all do that.

That's what you should take away here.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:55 AM on January 21 [11 favorites]


Srivastava was surprised that no doctor or nurse had been curious about her pain insensitivity before. (Cameron told me that she didn’t think it was particularly notable: “They’ve got so many people demanding their attention, screaming—they’re the ones you focus on.”) Srivastava recognized that her case was extraordinary

Perhaps it is not entirely uncommon, but folks that do not feel pain are mostly not noticed. Squeaky wheel and all that. There are a fair number of folks that go along in safe contemporary environments that do not have a finger cut off by machinery or other serious pain event. And there are certainly a number that feel extreme pain for psychological reasons, it works, it gets attention.

It would seem that at least a tingle of sensation could be a good idea to note when an ankle injury would be best to have some immobilization, "oh better get that looked at", she did have a broken arm that was set after her mother noticed. Odd, seems like family would've taken some note.

One would've thought a spy agency would have found her, torture, no problem, won't work.
posted by sammyo at 6:00 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]


There's no way her early life was that safe.

Right. Childhood involves a lot of face-planting, for starters.
posted by thelonius at 6:33 AM on January 21


I seem to remember reading other stuff about people with limited perception of pain where it was a big danger to them, and they accidentally injured themselves a lot.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:37 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]


I seem to remember reading other stuff about people with limited perception of pain where it was a big danger to them, and they accidentally injured themselves a lot.

When my stepdad had limited sensation in his hand after nerve damage from a car accident, I know they told him not to try to use the stove.

I can appreciate that pain is an essential warning from the body: you are injuring yourself, stop it at once. But it seems to me that the levels of pain the nervous system can produce are wildly excessive to this task. I feel confident, for example, that, say, half the pain would be enough to give me the message not to kick the leg of the coffee table.
posted by thelonius at 6:42 AM on January 21 [11 favorites]


Diabetic neuropathy is a bitch and a half. I don’t feel pain in my feet or lower legs, so I have to be vigilant for any kind of wound or even minor damage that could get infected. There is also a purely mental component, due to upbringing, that causes me to occasionally underestimate or outright dismiss the severity of damage, resulting in, so far, amputations on both feet.

The upside being that I don’t need pain meds after foot surgery. Hell of an upside ... :S
posted by drivingmenuts at 7:33 AM on January 21 [6 favorites]


I feel confident, for example, that, say, half the pain would be enough to give me the message not to kick the leg of the coffee table.

TBH it seems not enough as said coffee table is sure to get me again.
posted by avalonian at 7:46 AM on January 21 [3 favorites]


wonderful article.
i'm imaging a totally different GATTACA movie where this is the genes that everyone selects for...
posted by danjo at 8:11 AM on January 21 [2 favorites]


I feel like the x-ray of her destroyed hip was evidence enough that this isn’t an unmitigated blessing. It’s an interesting companion piece to the article about pharmaceuticals changing personality - as a neurotic her outlook does seem like a foreign country where I’d like to visit occasionally but not necessarily live. Like oh yeah, she gets indignant about politics and just attends a protest in part because she has no fear or anxiety.
posted by Selena777 at 8:29 AM on January 21


He would get down, and I would be the one that would bring him up again. You know, there’d be a game going: ‘Oh, it’s not that bad, come on.’

Amy finds her mother’s equanimity confounding. “She’ll say, ‘Why can’t you be a normal mom?’ ” Cameron told me. When Cameron asked, “What’s a normal mom?” Amy replied, “Well, it’s not you. They shout!” Cameron shook her head at the memory. “I sometimes think to myself, I’m being horrible. If someone is really in a rage and really upset, and you’re saying, ‘It’s all right!,’ then they get angrier. I can be very annoying—especially when you’re a teen-ager and you don’t want your problems solved. You just want someone to shout at.”

Imagine having to live with a person who cannot empathize (and then having the New Yorker write about how utterly delightful she is).
posted by adiabatic at 9:14 AM on January 21 [3 favorites]


It's clear that she has injured herself pretty badly in the past, and that is a risk. The thing that differentiates her from those who suffer from neuropathy (I think this is what the article was saying) is that she does feel sensation, she's not completely insensate about the intensity, it just doesn't seem to register as a bad thing for her.

Her marriage to her late first husband seems really tragic, and I can see exactly how that kind of relationship might come to be because I've been there, too.

Imagine having to live with a person who cannot empathize

Differences in empathy and expression of empathy exist across a range of neurodiversities.
posted by soren_lorensen at 9:56 AM on January 21 [2 favorites]


Differences in empathy and expression of empathy exist across a range of neurodiversities.

No doubt! I think a lot of people can relate to having a parent or partner who can't meet their emotional needs.
posted by adiabatic at 11:46 AM on January 21


The article seemed to handwave past the dangers of childhood and teen years. They were mentioned, but there was so much focus on how pleasant and calm Jo is, that it seemed like, "oh, this causes problems for some people" and not "many children with this condition will get infections that turn necrotic because they don't notice that their ankle has been throbbing for a week."

And that's before you get into the Stupid Human Tricks game of "I dare you to eat that." Not noticing a stomach ache often has worse potential medical consequences than not noticing a cut or bruise or broken bone.

The closing line - "Maybe Jo is the next evolutionary step" - completely ignores the lives of billions who don't live in sheltered communities with good health care always available, and all those who work in manual labor jobs, where pain is often your warning that something is wrong, even if it's just "my arms hurt when I lift this, because it's heavy."
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 11:53 AM on January 21 [7 favorites]


you should devote your life to reducing the amount of pain that others feel.

I'm actually not sure how I feel about this as a goal. I think it's good to strive to reduce suffering, but taken to its logical extreme, why not just nuke the planet so no one can suffer any more?

There is something about many efforts to reduce pain that seems based in fear, or disgust, rather than compassion.

Compassion is the suffering with, that entering into another person's experience, that fully accepts their truth even when it is gruesome or horrifying. That is loving them, in a way that insists on loving all of them and not just what is palatable.

Sometimes acts of pity or charity or relief can have this element of rejection, of denial. Just get it away, just make it stop, it's worthless, this part of your experience has no value and I don't want to look at it any more, because I can't bear it. So let's all just hide from it, deny it, avoid it, crush it any way possible, drown it out.

I personally find the need to make suffering worthwhile, to use it as a source of value instead of a source of disconnection. If we must suffer, let our suffering mean something, be good for something.

I'm not at all trying to imply that feeding the hungry or tending the ill or other acts of kindness are bad things. I believe these are very good things. But I don't consider this the highest of high goods for a rational being capable of discovering meaning in their experience and making something beautiful or significant or heroic out of it, of coming to an understanding of it.

Our desire to limit human pain must be tempered with the acceptance that pain is real, and always will be on this earth, and can be meaningful and even valuable.

I think the goal of eliminating suffering easily falls prey to a utilitarianism where the end justifies the means, and the evasion of suffering can become paralysing or dehumanising.

Likewise, I'm not trying to say that revelling in our own or others' pain is admirable or even acceptable. This kind of behaviour inhabits a scale from tiresome to terrifying.

But I think we need to be really honest with ourselves and our own motivations, and we need to accept the truth that human suffering is reality, and does not have to be devoid of value.

When I worked (briefly) for greenpeace, one of our mandates was to bear witness. That has always stayed with me. I think suffering can birth great glory, and I think sometimes the best we can do is simply to bear witness to it, and that witness is not nothing; it can be everything.
posted by windykites at 1:55 PM on January 21 [4 favorites]


Right. Childhood involves a lot of face-planting, for starters.

I was trying to remember a time in my life when I ever fell flat on my face and drew a blank. (And I am not a graceful person.)
I suppose you're mostly talking about toddlers (who hopefully at least land on carpet or grass more often than not)
posted by serena15221 at 2:26 PM on January 21 [1 favorite]


I was trying to remember a time in my life when I ever fell flat on my face and drew a blank

Really! I can remember several gratuitous injuries sustained in the stretch between toddlerhood and what they now call the "tween" years.
posted by thelonius at 2:44 PM on January 21


When my oldest was about a year old, just reaching "toddle around not always holding on to things," she got a small cut on her forehead. More experienced parents told me: note that spot. She'll have a small scrape or cut or bruise right at that height as she grows, until it reaches her knees, and then it'll probably go away.

And sure enough, she got taller but the mark stayed at the same height. Bumped her forehead on tables while she was learning to walk. Then bumped her chin on tables and chairs while trying to climb them. Then shoulders, trying to squeeze through spaces too small for her. Then hands, as she got strong and coordinated enough to (sigh) grab things with spikes or sharp edges. I don't remember thighs, but of course, she eventually got to the "skinned knees" stage.

The scrape, bruise, or cut stayed about 18" off the ground as the kid grew. None of it was serious, and a child with attentive parents and a relatively soft environment wouldn't have any problems from not feeling pain from those small injuries. But it might only take one of them going entirely untreated to put a child's life at risk - if there's no pain, the child might not show the injury to an adult, not get it washed, not get a bandage to prevent bacteria from getting in while it's healing.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 3:02 PM on January 21 [3 favorites]


a complete misread of the phrase “life is suffering.”

Well, yes; but to be fair, that phrase does seem deliberately constructed so as to encourage this very misread, and I have met many people who absolutely do take not only the inevitability of some suffering, but the inevitability and even desirability of permanent suffering, to be the point of it.

My main objection to it stems from the same root as my objection to the overuse of "everything" and "always" and "nothing" and "never" in places where "many things" and "often" and "few things" and "seldom" would be less dramatic and more accurate choices. Suffering poses quite enough difficulties in and of itself without indulging in an autoflagellatory amping-up of the stories we choose to tell ourselves about it.

If what is meant is that suffering is part of every life and that learning to bear it with equanimity is worthwhile, I would prefer that people just say that instead of reaching for the overly broad if rather snappy three-word advertising slogan. I don't have a lot of time for those who habitually self-promote as gnomic and profound.
posted by flabdablet at 12:12 AM on January 22


> I was trying to remember a time in my life when I ever fell flat on my face and drew a blank. (And I am not a graceful person.)

Yeah, same for me. I fell and scraped up my knees constantly as a small child; I was clumsy and impatient. But no real injuries -- never banged up my face or head, never broke a bone, never cut myself badly enough to need stitches. (And I still haven't, at 46.)
posted by desuetude at 7:51 AM on January 22 [2 favorites]


If what is meant is that suffering is part of every life and that learning to bear it with equanimity is worthwhile, I would prefer that people just say that instead of reaching for the overly broad if rather snappy three-word advertising slogan. I don't have a lot of time for those who habitually self-promote as gnomic and profound.

Trying to reduce the teachings of a 2500+-year-old tradition, within which and about which entire libraries have been written, to a three-word slogan will inevitably be reductive and simplistic. That's not the fault of Buddhism. People who are interested in learning more are warmly encouraged to look more deeply into, for example, the four noble truths.

A better reduction would actually be shorter: "Suffering is."
posted by Lexica at 9:47 AM on January 22


That's not the fault of Buddhism.

Quite so. It's the fault of three word slogans. Generally not a fan; the damn things are everywhere and I hold them largely responsible for the almost complete destruction of nuance in public discourse.
posted by flabdablet at 11:14 AM on January 22


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