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In which John discusses chronic physical pain during and after a visit to the dentist.

I highly recommend Elaine Scarry's The Body in Pain to anyone who lives with chronic pain or loves someone who does:

Thanks to Mike Rugnetta for recommending the book to me:

Thanks as always to Rosianna for reading the script, gathering materials, and everything else:
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Good morning Hank it's Tuesday. So in last week's video I said:

"You'll never guess where I'm going next."

And then your lovely wife commented "It was a toss up between whether you were going to the dentist or the airport, honestly." 
Well the joke's on you Katherine, because I'm at the dentist. I've been to the dentist a lot, more than 150 times actually, in the 13 long years since I was standing on a curb in Chicago reading a novel and a bike messenger's shoulder ran into my face. The original fractures were initially misdiagnosed, which led to a long-term infection and many, many surgeries and quite a bit of ongoing pain. Alright, I think I've had enough of watching that.

Hi, greetings from the future where I'm in my basement. So Hank, this pain goes way back. In fact, I complained about it in January of 2007, in the third video I ever made.

"Hank, as you know, I had surgery on my mouth a few weeks ago."

I complained about it again a few months ago in a video when my mouth was still numb. And in between, I found little ways of talking about it without talking about it. Like back in March of 2007, I complained about a "doctor's visit" that was actually a dentist visit at which my oral surgeon told me, and I'm quoting him directly here "You probably have nothing to worry about." 

"I probably have nothing to worry about. If I probably have nothing to worry about, then I definitely have something to worry about."

Ah, how right you were, me from the past. I should say, that person is no longer my oral surgeon, and these days I have, like, some of the best dentists and oral surgeons around, I'm very very lucky to have such incredible care. But it often still hurts a lot.

One of the problems with physical pain, I mean aside from the pain itself which for me at least is literally maddening, is that physical pain is essentially un-sharable. Like a few days ago my son was bitten by an ant and after he told me what happened he said "It hurt like this" and then he pinched me. He was trying to shrink the space between his pain and my understanding of it, and language just wouldn't suffice, not because he's 6 but because language is always inadequate in the face of pain. But of course being pinched doesn't really help you understand the pain of someone else's ant bite either. It's very, very hard if not impossible to bridge that empathy gap.

I've talked before about Elaine Scarry's brilliant book The Body In Pain, which was first recommended to me by Mike Rugnetta. In one famous passage of the book, Scarry writes, "To have great pain is to have certainty. To hear that another person has pain is to have doubt." In that respect, and many others, physical pain can be profoundly isolating. No matter how many similes and metaphors you employ to describe the pain, no matter how many times you pinch the people you love to try to get them to understand, no one can ever quite know what it's like to have your pain anymore than you can know what it's like to have someone else's.

Pain is a reminder that you are alone inside your body, that no one else can access your consciousness and that what you call yourself is, at least in some ways, a kind of prison from which there is no earthly escape. And that's like horror-movie-level terrifying if you think about it long enough. And that’s how I feel at least when pain is turning me inward and inward in an ever-tightening spiral.

But that’s not all pain can do. This is the part of the video where I generally take a turn toward hopefulness, Hank, which is challenging when it comes to chronic pain. But I don't think impossible! I guess that's easy for me to say because again, I have excellent care and I don't live in constant pain. And I want to be clear, I don't subscribe to the notion that suffering is somehow ennobling. It sucks. But I do think when you find yourself able to turn outward, knowing pain can help you be much more empathetic, which in turn helps us to alleviate each other’s suffering because sometimes listening generously to people in pain and believing them can be very good medicine.

So Hank, Nerdfighteria, thank you for listening. Hank, I'll see you on Friday.