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Two cheers for pain

Reaching for the Aspirin bottle is not the only option

I'm a big fan of headaches.

Not at the moment I'm having one, of course. But philosophically, ideologically, and in principle, I am a headache advocate.

Let me explain.

Perhaps I can trace the origins of this peculiar worldview back to my father. How many times did I hear him say, "You don't have to take an Aspirin just because you have a headache."

As a teenager, it wasn't mere adolescent obstinacy that made me question my father's sanity after hearing such a statement. What better reason than a headache could there be for taking Aspirin? Why had G-d created Aspirin if not alleviate pain? With a single utterance my father had invalidated the entire field of medicine.

Oddly enough, it wasn't only my father who thought this way. "Headaches are not caused by an Aspirin deficiency in the blood stream." Whether I picked up this annoying aphorism from bumper sticker, a pop-culture guru, or a college professor I really can't remember. But wherever it came from, score a point for Dad.

None of this had any effect on my behavior, however. Even the mildest headache sent me running for the medicine cabinet and the Aspirin bottle. Later it would be Acetaminophen, and later still Ibuprofen. Whatever the hidden wisdom of Dad's inscrutable outlook on medicine, it wasn't compelling enough to make me endure unnecessary discomfort.


As I grew older, Dad got smarter, and eventually I began to appreciate that maybe he had been on to something after all. The more we look for instant relief from our problems, the more we become intolerant and, to some degree, incapacitated by increasingly trivial inconveniences. If we come to expect that we can make our medical ailments disappear with minimal effort, we impair our own ability to hold up under other forms of adversity and problem-solve when faced by other kinds of obstacles.

Jewish tradition promotes a similar outlook. In his exposition on Leviticus, the brilliant medieval commentator Rabbi Moses ben Nachman (Ramban) observes that, in response to illness, a person should seek out a spiritual cause for his ailments rather than turning to a medical professional. Such a radical statement might leave the Ramban vulnerable to accusations of religious extremism if not for the curious fact that he was himself a physician. How could a medical doctor at once practice and disdain the art of medicine?

Without question, the Ramban never advocated the abolition of medical treatment. Rather, he understood that every physical condition reflects a more profound spiritual reality. This does not mean that we suffer because we have sinned, but that every form of suffering serves a purpose. Just as pain is the body's method of alerting us to physical problems that require our attention, similarly does it alert us to matters of the soul that demand decisive action.

Our first response should always be to seek medical treatment for what ails us. However, if we believe that medicine alone will provide relief from our suffering, then even if pills or surgery do cure a particular condition, the unaddressed spiritual root will remain, eventually manifesting itself as some other kind of problem.


A classic television commercial from the 1970s showed an auto mechanic, standing in front of a car up on jacks while explaining how the owner's failure to replace a $30 oil filter resulted in a $300 repair job. With a friendly smile, the mechanic says, "You can pay me now, or pay me later."

Oddly enough, we frequently choose to pay later. By opting to avoid short-term pain, however, we inevitably cause ourselves long-term pain. By refusing to deal with problems when they are manageable, we allow them to grow to monstrous proportions until they can no longer be ignored.

What are the consequences of striving to make our lives free from every manner of discomfort or delay? We air-condition our homes, seek instantaneous connection to others through texting and tweeting, silence the background noise of our music through digital filtering, and Tivo our way through commercials, all the while rendering ourselves less and less capable of dealing with any inconvenience, paralyzing ourselves when life fails to adhere to our desires and expectations. When problems too big to be vanquished by popping a pill or clicking a button rise up before us, we crumple, often giving up without a fight.

And so back to Aspirin. It's not the intrinsic pain of the headache that benefits us, but the acceptance that life in this world is not supposed to be pain-free. The Creator placed us in world that requires us to grapple with our problems and work through them rather than expecting them to effortlessly disappear. That we respond to suffering through a process of introspection and self-reflection is every bit as critical as seeking medical attention.

My own experience with headaches was particularly dramatic. Not content to suffer mere throbbing or pounding, mine are called "cluster headaches," recurring every year or two (or three, by the grace of G-d) in rapid, incapacitating succession. Neurologists describe cluster headaches as the most painful of all migraines. It's reassuring to know I'm not just a wimp when I complain, as the pain reaches a crescendo, that I'd rather be dead.

The truth is, however, that if not for my headaches I probably would be dead. Dr. Nisan Schleifer, the internist from whom I sought help for my headaches, never managed to make them go away. But in the course of his thorough investigation, he did discover a hole in my heart, undiagnosed from childhood into my early thirties. Untreated, my condition would have caused mounting circulatory backpressure, gradual blood seepage into pulmonary system and, eventually, slow death by asphyxiation.

Instead, after a surprisingly uneventful open-heart surgery, I have a more regular heartbeat and better stamina than ever before. And although I still complain about my headaches and race for the migraine medicine (which gets more effective with each passing year), I'm grateful for the pain that spared me from something infinitely worse.

I don't remember my father ever saying, "This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you." But if we listen carefully, we can imagine the Almighty whispering the same message, and for the same reason.

And if we pay attention, rather than prompting us to cry out against the injustice of our fate, our pain can make us more conscious of our own obligation to look a little deeper for the lessons that reside within every inconvenience and discomfort, before we begin searching frantically for the quickest method to make them all go away.

Originally published in 2009 by Jewish World Review

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