When Pain Doesn’t Hurt: A Lesson From Dune


by G. Scott Huggins

In the wake of the building excitement surrounding Denis Villeneuve’s attempt to take on the filming of another incarnation of the novel Dune, which is one of my all-time favorite reads (and let us hope that he will be the director who finally realizes that there are NO GUNS IN THE ARMIES OF DUNE!), I find myself drawn to the question of pain. For those unfamiliar with the book: in one of the most iconic scenes from the novel and the David Lynch movie, the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam tests the young Paul Atreides with a box that induces almost unbearable pain through his nervous system. Her reasoning for this is that a fully-aware human must be wiling to endure pain for the greater good of his species. To wait through pain to achieve the goal of protecting those who would trap and harm humans. In fact, she uses the analogy of an animal caught in a trap chewing off its own foot to escape. A human would wait in the trap and attempt to kill the trapper.

It occurs to me that there is yet another point to her argument that is not explored. A human would also consider the possibility that the trapper might not be the enemy that he seemed. This is one of the reasons we sometimes trap animals in the wild, after all: to treat them. Further, a human would realize that chewing off its own leg would actually hurt it, depriving it permanently of a limb, while remaining in the trap might preserve the limb and its life.

It seems to me that in Western society, we have fallen for a terrible delusion that pain is always equal to hurt. On the very superficial level, this is ridiculous. We also have the saying “no pain, no gain.” Discipline is always painful. It is, however, the very opposite of hurtful. We tolerate the infliction of pain on ourselves for gain. Why do we assume that the inflicting of pain upon others, or them inflicting pain upon us, is some ultimate trauma not to be borne?

Moreover, the definition of pain seems to be expanding at a dizzying pace. It was in my own lifetime that corporal punishment was not out of the question at schools around the nation. Today, it is out of the question at all but a vanishingly small number of private institutions. And increasingly, we are asked to believe that speech is violence, and that disagreement is tantamount to violence.

Steven Barnes, a writer whom I respect enormously, has often repeated that humans naturally move toward pleasure and away from pain. If someone is not moving in the direction of greater personal development, it is because he or she believes that the pleasure of accomplishment is lesser than the pain that accomplishment will cost. He knows, as do all fully developed and awake humans, that pleasure always lies on the other side of pain. And so the cost of making the choice not to go through that pain – however understandable it might be, however well-justified it might be, however good a reason you have – is to remain less than the human that you could become.

It’s important to realize, of course, that humans have limits. No one can go through all the pain of a lifetime in too short a time. We do need to recover even from good pain, to say nothing of actually harmful pain. To do otherwise is analogous to over-training at the gym: you will hurt your body rather than strengthen it. It is possible to do the same to the mind and the soul.

I believe that there are two forces at work here that have contributed, however, to our society’s embrace of the opposite extreme, the one that avoids all pain at all costs:

Firstly, the 20th century exposed the world to the fact that there are many predators out there who will claim to be inflicting pain only for the good of the oppressed. The Nazis, Fascists and Communists all claimed that their death camps and gulags were only operated in the service of the greater good of “freeing” the world from oppression. Even the Western democracies, while immeasurably better-behaved, signed on to monstrous deeds in the name of “saving” the world from these scourges.

Secondly, the 20th and 21st centuries have seen the world reach the apex of human civilization thus far. Humans, especially in the Western world, are more powerful and richer than they have ever been. And the purpose of power is, well, to avoid pain and pursue pleasure. That is the normal human use of power. And today, we can use it to construct virtual echo chambers around us, where no dissenting thought need be admitted except to be mocked by us and our friends. Where no one is allowed to contradict us, much less threaten us with actual violence. We can, for the first time, on the mainstream level, protect ourselves from the pain of having to engage with our fellow humans on any level we do not wish to. We cannot prevent them from affecting us, but we can persuade ourselves that we are right, that we are in the majority, and that we are stronger. And when two or more sides of a conflict believe that, then war is not far away. Indeed, war is not even to be feared, and may be desirable. Those people do not have to be argued with: they can simply be swept away. It is a type of Orwellianism, only without the need for an oppressive state to impose a Two Minutes Hate. Twitter mobs can spontaneously begin one and continue destroying their targets until the hate burns itself out. Or the target commits suicide. And if we choose to join one, we can cast ourselves in that most envied role: that of the brave revolutionary, forever oppressed, yet forever marching forward to inevitable victory, secure in the moral superiority of our permanent revolution. 

And so the pleasure that we are enjoying and the pain we are avoiding, as far as I can see, is leading us away from developing ourselves as humans, and away from developing a healthy society. In Dune the Reverend Mother said, “once men turned their thinking over to machines in the belief that this would set them free, but it only permitted other men with machines to enslave them.” While that is a problem we are dealing with, I might more urgently paraphrase it thus: “Now we turn away from pain to enjoy pleasure, but it will only permit other humans who will endure pain to outthink and enslave us.” Pain stands in our way. That’s where it always is. But pain is not the problem. Unwillingness to confront and overcome pain is the problem, and it traps us, keeping us closer to our animal and child natures than to our human and adult natures. Pain and pleasure are always before and behind us. We have only to choose to flee from the pain and pleasure behind, and confront the pain and the pleasure before. This is what it means to be fully human.


1 Comment

  1. Perhaps it’s worth distinguishing between “pain”, and something that lies between “lack of comfort” or “challenging”. Hardly anyone advocates punching people in the face, say, or insulting them because the suffering endured would somehow improve them. And I suspect most would say that sticking one’s hand in a nerve induction box would be pointless machismo. (What pleasure does Steven Barnes claim to lie at the other end of a random punch to the face?)

    But plenty of people undertake hours of study and practice in order to learn a trade, learn a new language, etc., or deny themselves immediate pleasures in order to complete a necessary task or to save up for a holiday. Encountering a different culture or value system might involve being outside one’s comfort zone. We might say that such people are denying themselves comfort or being challenged, and improving themselves by it, but hardly anyone would describe them as being “in pain” or suggest that study (etc.) works _because_ it is “painful”.

    I suppose that the Reverend Mother is trying to get at the idea that humans are able to make plans for the future, and thereby delay gratification when some immediate effort or discomfort leads to a better outcome later, albeit in a way that modern people would find barbaric. But I don’t know that this single trait is what makes us human, any more than a single trait like walking on two legs or having fingers distinguishes humans from all other species.

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