The greater gain

June 1, 2019 -- Living City

The greater gain
Painkillers are a blessing. Overused, they turn into a curse

By Jerry Hearne

Records show a new leader in the cause of death among Americans below the age of 50. It’s not one of the growing medical conditions that mark our times, but one that develops from the very treatment of conditions: pain-killing medicines in the form of opioids. In 2017 more than 47,000 people across the U.S. died from overdose.

Opioids come under prescription names such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine and others. Belonging to the same category as heroin, opiates are highly effective in alleviating moderate to severe pain.

I have experienced their effect myself after complicated orthopedic surgery. While resting in the hospital, I felt far more comfortable than I could have imagined. Discussing my pain level with the nurse, she cautioned me that the drugs I was issued could leave me eventually prone to addiction.

When she noted, however, that I overreacted by asking for them too sparingly, she encouraged me to take them as needed. Their purpose was to permit immediate exercise, allowing my own body’s resources to take over sooner.

But what makes opioids so fatal? While relieving pain, they also, however, slow down breathing. When taken unsupervised they can stop breathing. Secondly, opioids relieve emotional pain.

This is why a number of patients, using the prescriptions at home, continue to report physical pain, even when it has subsided. The drug had produced an emotional calm that was difficult to give up. Such a desirable effect leads to people acquiring them through other avenues in order to continue their use.

Safer alternatives may be considered, but this dilemma brings up a serious question. While it is understandable to want to be free of emotional pain, can we find a purpose in pain that allows us to endure it in view of a greater gain?

As human beings we have a natural tendency to want to experience inner harmony. Infants, by crying, instinctively express their discomfort. Something is not right, and mothers learn their children’s cues. Their child may be hungry, or may simply need loving attention. But at what moment in life do we keep ourselves from asking others to tend to our instinctual needs, and take up the task of our own development?

Development demands an acceptance of the pain that serves to expand our horizons. New horizons of purpose and meaning bring about a greater sense of self. It’s a lifetime process.

The poet Rilke wrote, “Our ego [our present sense of self] needs to be constantly defeated by ever larger things.” We don’t know the extent of our possible growth as human beings, but we can intuit that there is no ceiling. It eventually depends on us whether pain gets us stuck, or serves us by enlarging our understanding of ourselves, others and the world around us.

It may be presumptuous to say that we all get stuck. But it’s not a rule that we need to remain there. It often takes a measure of courage to find our way out of a difficult situation, learn from it and move on with confidence.

I’m reminded of the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, who worked tirelessly, notwithstanding threats to her life, for the rights of others. She wrote: “Courage is more exhilarating than fear, and in the long run it is easier. We do not have to become heroes overnight. Just a step at a time, meeting each thing that comes up, seeing it is not as dreadful as it appeared, discovering we have the strength to stare it down.”

Things happen to all of us that can discourage and cause us to slow down. One day I felt a quiet, subtle nudge to finally face head-on earlier events in my life that seemed to come back repeatedly to haunt me. In reality, it was an invitation to forgive those incidents, which lead me to forgive every hurt that life itself had caused me along the way.

I did not know that I was carrying a burden of resentment until it no longer held me down. I was soon moving forward with a freedom I had not known. I realized only then that the greatest gift I have is life itself.

I can now appreciate how medicines of all kinds, when used properly, and with humility, can assist us back to health. Fortunately, however, for the benefit of our own human development, they cannot take the place of the ageless qualities stored within us waiting to be discovered and experienced.


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