Friday, August 03, 2007

No Pain ... No Gain?

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What is the value of experience ... of an experience?
Seems a reasonable question for summer time, that season when folks hit the road. As Kerouac said, "all that road going, all the people dreaming."
But what do we gain from the going? Do we pile up memories in so many mental zip drives or drawers of old photographs?
We privilege experience in most every field of human endeavor believing that it teaches us something, that we gain ... what? Wisdom? Facility? This seems expecially true of experiences of pain and suffering. But what wisdom, what facility, is to be gained through pain?
Two random and apparently disconnected observations prompt the questions:
First, watching a bit of a political debate recently I noticed how military service is a distinctly privileged experience in political discourse. The rhetoric of unrestrained praise for military service always seems to imply that if you have not served the nation in its armed forces then you have not authentically served the nation. Moreover, if you have not served under arms -- especially under fire -- then you are deeply suspect on any question that can be considered a matter of "national security."
This rhetoric serves to marginalize women -- who were barred from such service until the present generation of soldiers -- and anyone who is unmanly enough to imagine that war as a means of addressing international issues may have outlived its usefullness.
Listening to that line of thought bleeding through various comments during the debate I wondered, "would you have to have been in a war to know that war is hell"? I doubt it, but, then again, I am of a suspect group and my doubts are marginal at best to such a debate.
So then I wondered, "what wisdom would one gain from the experience of war"? Certainly war is about suffering and pain and death. Rule number one of war: young men die. What does that fact have to teach those who survive? Does the experience of such pain bring wisdom that is useful for engaging the future in a way that leads a community, a nation, toward "peace and prosperity"?
With those unanswered questions nowhere close to the surface of thought, I was watching a baseball game on TV last night. Andruw Jones was at the plate for the good guys. He took a mighty swing ... and missed. The movement jolted something in his body and left him in obvious, if momentary, pain. The next pitch was delivered and as Jones began his swing it was clear to see that the involuntary memory of pain stopped his body well short of a full cut and he grounded out weekly to shortstop.
What wisdom had he gained by experience? What had his suffering taught him? Was he better able to serve his purposes and his community's -- er, team's -- by virtue of the experience?
To be sure, the fields of play are of a different category and have their own imperatives. But that one at bat raised for me a series of questions about how and what we learn from pain.
If, as in the stories that dominate political discourse, we simply valorize it and reduce it to categories of courage and heroism, then pain and suffering have little to teach us.
But, if we widen the categories through which we come to understand pain, perhaps we can learn something after all. At least enough, perhaps, to avoid swinging for the fences next time around.

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