How can political theory help us think about chronic pain?
“Indeed, the most intense feeling we know of, to the point of blotting out other experiences, namely, the experience of great pain, is at the same time the most private and least communicable of all.” – Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
In the above quote, political theorist Hannah Arendt reminds us that pain is not only a topic of medical concern; it has philosophical and political dimensions. For Arendt, politics doesn’t mean what goes on amongst politicians. It means, rather, what happens between individuals who courageously seek to create something new in the world. In her work, political action is the most distinctly human activity of all, making it important to her conception of a life well lived.
Arendt’s politics take place in what she calls the “space of appearance.” Two essential aspects of Arendt’s political existence are: a shared world and communication. We, along with what we create, appear to one another in the world between us, which we share. To be political we must speak (communicate) as well as act; in speech, we “disclose” ourselves – we show ourselves as individuals with our own perspective, experience and initiative.
If you live with chronic pain, whether intermittent or constant, you likely find it hard if not impossible at times to focus on anything but the pain. As Arendt said, pain has a way of “blotting out other experiences.” Pain is not only problematic because it is an unpleasant sensation or the symptom of a physiological problem. It interferes with one’s ability to lead a full life.
Physical pain may be the most private experience of all; it can’t be shared, and it can’t be described adequately in words. This ineffable nature of pain, the limits it places on one’s ability to disclose his or her personal reality, can create a barrier between the individual and others. The barrier between self and others – between one’s “experience of great pain” and the experiences of others – posed by chronic pain is most profound for those who experience “invisible illnesses” such as fibromyalgia and chronic back pain. These conditions often have no visible component; they don’t appear to others like a wound or broken limb.
There may be no easy solution to overcoming the problem posed by the interiority of pain. Support communities have grown to bring people with invisible illnesses together, to combat the sense of isolation that is so pervasive. This can go a long way toward improving mental and emotional well-being, but the space of appearance opened up here is limited; it is exclusive of those without invisible illnesses. It is a restricted space of appearance, and the effects of actions taking place within it will therefore be limited as well.
This is where art may be useful to the chronic pain patient. Art has the power to put something interior and immaterial into external, material form. Arendt discussed art in the context of creating permanence in the world by establishing durable objects meant to outlast us mortals and, sometimes, to tell a story to immortalize those who have passed. But for our purposes, we can think of art as having the capacity to make pain appear to an audience. This may be done through story, drawing, painting, photography, sculpture, etc. Art has the capacity to help people understand what medical descriptions fail to convey, as it can capture and convey intimate experiences. If art is effective in widening the space of appearance in which pain can appear, it may lead to decreased stigmatization, greater mental and emotional well-being for those in pain and, importantly, a greater field for disclosure, action and relationship with one another.
Pain management is necessary for preventing pain from “blotting out other experiences,” allowing people to live fuller lives. Art may be a useful tool for patients with invisible illnesses, as it can provide an entry point for the intimate experience of pain into the space of appearance with others. You can find a gallery of artwork that makes pain more communicable at painexhibit.org.