Please let me be clear that despite all this talk of battering, that’s not what my husband was doing to me. We were being bad for each other.
My body, on the other hand, was most definitely whumping me. But then again, maybe that was mutual too. The body and soul can do awful non-consensual things to each other. They knew that even in the 17th century.
A Dialogue between the Soul and the Body
O who shall, from this dungeon, raise
A soul enslav’d so many ways?
With bolts of bones, that fetter’d stands
In feet, and manacled in hands;
Here blinded with an eye, and there
Deaf with the drumming of an ear;
A soul hung up, as ’twere, in chains
Of nerves, and arteries, and veins;
Tortur’d, besides each other part,
In a vain head, and double heart.
O who shall me deliver whole
From bonds of this tyrannic soul?
Which, stretch’d upright, impales me so
That mine own precipice I go;
And warms and moves this needless frame,
(A fever could but do the same)
And, wanting where its spite to try,
Has made me live to let me die.
A body that could never rest,
Since this ill spirit it possest.
What magic could me thus confine
Within another’s grief to pine?
Where whatsoever it complain,
I feel, that cannot feel, the pain;
And all my care itself employs;
That to preserve which me destroys;
Constrain’d not only to endure
Diseases, but, what’s worse, the cure;
And ready oft the port to gain,
Am shipwreck’d into health again.
But physic yet could never reach
The maladies thou me dost teach;
Whom first the cramp of hope does tear,
And then the palsy shakes of fear;
The pestilence of love does heat,
Or hatred’s hidden ulcer eat;
Joy’s cheerful madness does perplex,
Or sorrow’s other madness vex;
Which knowledge forces me to know,
And memory will not forego.
What but a soul could have the wit
To build me up for sin so fit?
So architects do square and hew
Green trees that in the forest grew.
Yep, that was me. My body’s best trick was making me physically unable to read half of my books for months. Gave me shooting pains in the wrists. And my depression retaliated by wrecking my tailbone and ribs and knees and feet. Before I knew it, I was just as depressed about the pain as the breakup, and the resulting positive feedback loop was … not positive.
I can tell you, I really wanted out of my body. Or my life.
But according to the visionary writer Ursula Le Guin, there is an alternative to walking away from the pain. You can simply go through.
“Suffering is a misunderstanding …. It exists. It’s real. I can call it a misunderstanding, but I can’t pretend that it doesn’t exist, or will ever cease to exist. Suffering is the condition on which we live. And when it comes, you know it. You know it as the truth. Of course it’s right to cure diseases, to prevent hunger and injustice, as the social organism does. But no society can change the nature of existence. We can’t prevent suffering. This pain and that pain, yes, but not Pain. A society can only relieve social suffering, unnecessary suffering. The rest remains. The root, the reality.
“All of us here are going to know grief; if we live fifty years, we’ll have known pain for fifty years. And in the end we’ll die. That’s the condition we’re born on. I’m afraid of life! There are times I — I am very frightened. Any happiness seems trivial.
“And yet, I wonder if it isn’t all a misunderstanding — this grasping after happiness, this fear of pain …. If instead of fearing it and running from it, one could … get through it, go beyond it. There is something beyond it. It’s the self that suffers, and there’s a place where the self — ceases. I don’t know how to say it. But I believe that the reality — the truth that I recognize in suffering as I don’t in comfort and happiness — that the reality of pain is not pain. If you can get through it. If you can endure it all the way.”
My initial reaction to this was: Bullshit. Been sick, been well. Well is better. We don’t need pain.
Unless you want to believe in something higher, that is. According to my religious history professor, the greatest blow ever struck to religion was effective painkillers. Suddenly you didn’t need a reason for your suffering. You could leave that battering bastard behind.
But sometimes, of course, you don’t want to get away. As sadists and masochists, we know that pain can be delicious, thrilling, beguiling. And I have come to believe that every kink is rooted in some experience that feels good for vanillas too. So what is this about pain that can make us feel like we have touched the hand of God?
It turns out that Ursula Le Guin has the answer to that, too. It comes at the end of the same conversation I quoted above. They’re talking about a man dying from full-body burns.
“You couldn’t do anything for him. There was no aid to give. Maybe he knew we were there, I don’t know. It didn’t do him any good. You couldn’t do anything for him. Then I saw … you see … I saw that you can’t do anything for anybody. We can’t save each other. Or ourselves.”
“What have you left, then? Isolation and despair! You’re denying brotherhood, Shevek!” the tall girl cried.
“No — no, I’m not. I’m trying to say what I think brotherhood really is. It begins — it begins in shared pain.”
I think Ursula Le Guin is right, at least about me. My pain is getting better because of all the people helping me. Their professional knowledge of alternative medicine helps, but the moral support is what makes the difference between depression and progress. You could say my body and I are in marriage counselling.
And I think Ursula Le Guin is right about BDSM, too. She’s just described my price for offering up my body and soul as your plaything: that you make the journey with me. Your focus in exchange for my everything else. Know my pain carnally, as I know your pleasures.
That’s how we come to live in each other’s minds. That’s how pain turns into magic, holiness, love.
I wonder, can I turn this around and make it into my metric for when to get out of a relationship? God knows I need something. Because it is really, really hard to know your breaking point when you’re tuned to abject submission. For me it’s not just the body, not just the heart, not just the soul – all of me just wants to take it.
I do have a lot of ego and willpower. But none of that tells you when to stop. It just keeps everyone on the rack for longer.
So here’s what I will tell myself next time. The red flag is when the pain stops being shared – whatever kind it is. When the power exchange starts becoming a reservoir of misery, and before it becomes an oubliette of all feeling.
That’s when it’s time for the black hole to go wormhole.
See you on the other side? Perhaps we will find something to share.