In the past those who were lucky enough to live to adulthood would live out a few happy years of youthful energy before the sorrows of disease caught up with them. If you lived a long life, you would become the village elder, going through your final years as an old crone, a single snaggle tooth aching away in your mouth. An exceptionally sturdy person might outlive generations by reaching the grand old age of 60, but most of us, from one ailment or another, would waste away, losing our appetites and leaving the world withered and suffering. What I have just written is of course not based on any particular research, but is only composed of my recollections of things I have heard here and there.
In our modern lives, medicine can prolong our lives a great deal, and can sometimes make us more comfortable. But medicine has not so far progressed that everyone can be helped, and I might even go so far as to say that the great majority of illness and pain is still poorly understood, and difficult to treat. When we have a problem, we can only hope for a skilled diagnostician, and then following that stroke of good luck, hope that what we have is a simple and easily treated issue. These hopes are too often betrayed.
In various forms of media, those growing up in this age are given the optimistic image that doctors can fix anything, that if you can afford to see the right specialist, there is no problem that can't be solved. So when we finally grow up and our bodies begin to fail us in one way or another, it is a shock to us that this is not true. Our case feels special, our life unfair, our suffering unusual. On top of the real physical pain we are experiencing, we have in addition the mental anxiety that this is not normal, this isn't supposed to happen. We have the image of our full life ahead of us slowly being corrupted by the feeling that we have been robbed by the horrors of our own bodies.
Let us think again of the past. What did people do before sophisticated medicine? In some ways, we can think of their lives as mercifully short. That as they suffered, they had but a few years to live out. We can even glean some feeling of understanding why human history is so spattered with blood, with young men willing to throw their lives away, more afraid of growing old than of being bled out from a wound. To perhaps understand even the mental horror of giving birth to so many children, fully knowing how many women die during childbirth. I remember feeling reckless in my teenage years as well, thinking oddly that I wanted something to throw my life into.
Somehow, though, as we grow older, we cling to life more closely, even as pain increases, and our energy decreases. We as 21st century humans in developed countries fully see that we have a long while yet to live, years which will mercilessly degrade us, years which we desperately want to be as comfortable as possible.
At some point, when nutrition became better, people lived a little longer, but still did not have real medicine. In a millennium, if humans are still around, we might say that humans of the 21st century had only a very primitive form of medicine. But in any case, whether 2000 years ago or today, we have to live with our inadequate medicine. We have to confront pain at the psychological level, at the philosophical level. We have to learn to be at peace with and accept our reality, without bemoaning each day the unfairness and misery of our condition. In my uneducated opinion, I think this is why people became religious scholars, or sought refuge in monasteries and churches. This is why in general, outside of the very cynical views of religion, we associate most religions with a kind of peacefulness and calmness, with soothing music, quiet halls, and meditative practices. So much of the practice of religion is to calm the heart and leave it optimistic, to reduce our anxiety over the future, to help us forget the unfairness and suffering of life.
It is not necessary to follow any organized religion, or to seek religious guidance. But it is important, when in great pain, to reduce excitability in your heart, to keep your mind from racing, and to be able to think clearly and sleep well. To accept chronic pain as part of life without allowing it to take over your life. Whether the pain was caused by incompetence or by sheer bad luck, once it has become our reality and we have done enough to determine if it can be mitigated, we have to come to terms with it and forgive its existence in our lives, lest we become irritable and even more unhappy in our long, long lives.