The Burr

From Menletter January 2010


By Tim Baehr


I had a burr on my bare foot. It was summer; we were visiting friends in Fort Myers, Florida, who had abandoned the drear and the cold of Cleveland weather to open a motel. I was eight. I don't know how long the burr had been there; once I noticed it, the burr hurt like crazy. It hurt more if I poked it with my finger. I whimpered.


The whimpering gave way to sniveling and sobbing. Fred, the owner of the motel, came by and asked what was wrong. I pointed. He reached down to pull it off.


"No, don't do that!" I screamed. "It'll hurt even more!"


What does a grown man do with a terrified little boy who is in pain but won't let you help? Squatting down, Fred talked to me, keeping eye contact. As I blubbered on, imploring him not to touch the burr, he asked me, quite reasonably, how we were going to get it off my foot.


Just as I was wailing that I didn't know, but don't touch me, it hurts so much, Fred stood up and handed me the burr. I looked down at the burr-less foot, blinked the tears away. And I was angry. Angry that I had been such a coward. Angry that Fred had helped me in spite of my entreaties. Angry that he had somehow tricked me. Angry that I would now have to thank him for tricking me. The anger was worse than the pain.


And he knew all this. He grinned, making the furrows of his leathery Florida face deepen, and went back to hosing down the sidewalks.


Pain is a funny thing. It's real. It has physiological and psychological components. Much of the time physical pain serves us well, warning us away from danger, telling us not to touch something more than once, indicating that we are ill and should seek help. Pain even provides us a contrast to pleasure; as we seek pleasure, we avoid pain.


Pain is part of the human condition. It follows us from the first breath, accompanying the trauma of birth, to the last breath, accompanying the circumstances of our death.


One of the first insights of Buddhism is that suffering is part of the human condition, that suffering is the result of craving and attachment, and that we can end our suffering by following the Middle Way - the Eightfold Path.


Oh, sure. All we have to do to not feel pain is to bliss out somewhere on a cushion. If we get really advanced and evolved, someone can stick a burr on us or punch us in the face, and we won't even feel it. Pain, after all, is just another illusion like the Self.


Bull. That's just a popular misconception of Buddhism. Any physiologist worth his or her salt (and advanced degree) can tell us that we have pain receptors in our nervous system, and that we even respond to some pain signals as reflexes - without involving our brains until we interpret the pain a second or two later.


Interpretation is helpful in many aspects of our lives, but it can also get us into trouble. We feel a minor or major pain, and our mind begins a dialog almost at once: "This shouldn't be happening. I don't deserve this pain. This pain is driving me crazy. I'll never be free of this; it's going to ruin my whole afternoon. Maybe my whole life." And this is just a taste of what kinds of mind stuff we wrap around our pain.


Our mind has set up some ideal, pain-free state. The more the ideal seems to recede from us, the more attached we become to it. The discrepancy between the real pain and the pain-free ideal that we crave is what suffering is. The suffering may amplify the pain, or it may just add misery on top of the pain. At any rate, we're caught in a vicious cycle, comparing our ever-escalating discomfort to our ever-receding ideal.


Bodies respond automatically to pain. Very few people can suppress that response. But, as much as our suffering can feel outside our control, it is not automatic. That doesn't mean we are somehow defective or must feel guilty if we suffer and can't shut it off by force of will. Suffering, like pain, is part of the human condition. But sometimes we can manage to break the cycle, to see that, since we created the suffering, we can un-create it and deal only with the pain.


The physical pain-and-suffering connection is straightforward enough. But how much suffering, from mild to extreme, arises from no physical pain at all? We lose a job. We dent the new car. We get divorced. We flunk out of school. These aren't pleasant experiences, but how often do they get run through the amplifying circuits of our desire for the ideal? Even when the pain is gone, and the unpleasantness has ended, the suffering continues on. The ideal has not been restored, even though it never existed in the first place. Pain is not an illusion, but the suffering and the ideal are mental constructs. You might even call them illusions.


Let's take apart the little adventure with the burr. I felt the burr as something unusual on my foot. I looked down, and criminy! There was this THING on my toe. I touched it. It hurt. Now my situation became as stuck to me as the burr. The more I thought about the darn thing, the more it seemed to hurt. I was sure it was going to hurt even more if I or anyone else touched it. My entire sense of what was Right with the Universe was shattered. Why else would I get into a state that ended up in hysterical sobbing? I was trapped, suffering in Hell, and there was no way out. My mind had convinced itself of this. (This is an adult's interpretation from an event almost six decades ago, but I bet most people have had this intense a reaction to something like a burr in the foot.) Fred's rescue didn't even eliminate the suffering-induced pain right away, until he showed me the burr. And then, when everything should be all right, and the suffering fly away with the pain, I found a new way to suffer, through embarrassment and anger.


We'll all have a chance to ask ourselves from time to time: Is this the suffering of the damned, destined to go on for ever? Or is it a burr? And where is Fred when you need him?


ęCopyright 2010 by Tim Baehr