Searching for Profundity

Certain circumstances exist in which, given a choice between the two, a person might opt to experience physical pain rather than emotional pain. It depends, of course, on the causes of the pain. Like chronic physical pain, chronic emotional pain can become so overwhelmingly burdensome as to cause a person to willingly submit to almost anything to make it stop—or, at least, to reduce its intensity to more tolerable levels. The types and magnitudes of pain—physical or emotional—dictate a person’s response and the choice between the two.

These thoughts are abstract. Concrete hypothetical and personal examples could quickly illustrate circumstances in which a person might choose to experience physical pain in place of emotional pain. But offering any such examples might open the floodgates to emotions too intense to tolerate. So, instead, I turn to experts to provide a hypothetical example. The Mayo Clinic has this to say:

Nonsuicidal self-injury, often simply called self-injury, is the act of harming your own body on purpose, such as by cutting or burning yourself. It’s usually not meant as a suicide attempt. This type of self-injury is a harmful way to cope with emotional pain, sadness, anger and stress.

Even though the Mayo Clinic’s example, which facilitates the understanding of the concept, is straightforward, the idea remains impersonal and distant. I suspect that until one experiences extraordinarily acute emotional pain, the notion of choosing to experience physical over emotional pain is speculative or theoretical. Maybe understanding the notion becomes clearer if one considers that choosing physical pain is a desperate attempt to dull the ferocity of the anguish one feels: anguish that often accompanies the death of a loved one. A person might be able to cope with that anguish for a relative short while. But when it lingers and its intensity remains high or even grows deeper and more fierce, a person might attempt to mute or distract from it through the introduction of physical pain.

I am by no means an expert in the psychology of exchanging emotional for physical pain. However, even though I have never experienced it, I understand the idea. I understand that emotional pain can become so fierce a person might attempt to overcome it through physical pain. Emotional pain usually is relatively easy to hide, whereas physical pain is far more difficult to conceal. Mysterious or inexplicable physical pain may be evidence of  fierce, but hidden, emotional anguish.

Where does all this lead? What answers are offered through this reflection? Nowhere and none. Just another topic rattling around in my head, needing to escape through my fingers.


Nothing great is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig, I answer you that there must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen.

~ Epictetus ~


The instant a moment passes, it is gone. Time sheds itself like a snake sheds its skin. But the snake leaves physical evidence. The only evidence of moments is memory, an imaginary experience. There may be physical evidence of events that took place during a moment in time, but the moment itself is gone, never to be resurrected. Time is not like an event captured on a video recording. Time cannot be recorded and replayed. The idea that it may be possible to “go back in time” is ludicrous. Moments in time are vaporous; they disappear into the ether of existence. If memory serves me correctly, chaos theory suggests the movement of a butterfly’s wings in the Amazon can cause disturbances in the atmosphere in China…or something like that. It is part of the idea of deterministic chaos. Once the wing moves, it disrupts the molecules of air around it, which in turn disrupt them molecules of air around those molecules, infinitum. It is impossible to reverse the effect, even by returning the butterfly’s wings to the precise position they were in before their effects were felt. The extended effects of the butterfly’s wing movement have already taken place. There is no “going back” to the moment its wings had not yet moved. And there is no “going back” to a moment before a bullet left the barrel of a gun; to think otherwise is delusional. Fundamentally flawed and irrational. Yet for all the evidence to the contrary, many of us—perhaps most of us—occasionally wish we could go back; to a gentler or happier or more peaceful time. To a time before the butterfly or the bullet had irrevocably altered the universe. We know that time is gone forever, yet still we long for it. We search through the evidence, sifting through the memories in our brains in the hope of finding and replaying it. Though we knew going in that the search was pointless and would fail, we tried anyway. We encountered and experienced our expected disappointment. We told ourselves we would not allow ourselves to again be tricked into believing in hope. Yet, buried beneath the ashes of wishes and layers of past disappointments, we will search again, only to fail again. A perpetual cycle of wishes and dashed dreams. Just part of life.


How different our lives would be if we insisted on surrounding ourselves only with the few practical tools we need to survive. No colorful clothes, no simple conveniences, no clocks, no music, etc. I prefer a world in which color and art and leisure and convenience exist alongside the mentally or physically taxing obligations that plague us. I think I am spoiled. As are many of the other people who occupy this planet. Would that everyone had the same opportunities to live in unnecessary luxury, as thin and weak as it is.


Off into another day. A day in which a clot of meteorologists is forecasting a wintry mix. We shall see, as we always do.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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