Pain as an Active Force

Tell me your relation to pain, and I will tell you who you are!”

Ernst Jüngers (1895 – 1998)

I’ve been chatting and sharing thoughts on philosophy, creativity and art with a colleague, Eduan Breedt. After much discussion I invited Ed to share some of his musings in a blog. Take it away Ed!

What is our current relationship with pain? How might it change over the course of our lives? The question I have been pondering most is: what might it or could it look like?

French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s interpretation of active forces and reactive forces has helped me with these questions – and come up with more.

In his reading of Nietchze, Deleuze speaks of how history unfolds through active and reactive forces.

An active force is one which creates. Todd May would say “It follows its own path; it does what it does”. What it creates allows new ways of being to emerge. It does not seek to destroy but may destroy as a result of its creation in the world. A tree may destroy the grass in its shade, but it does not seek to destroy, it does what it does.

A reactive force doesn’t follow its own path. It seeks to react to and oppose an active force. The word reactive is re-active. It is a response to an active force and only exists as a result of an active force.

The impressionist movement is an example of an active force. Claude Monet was one of the leading figures for the impressionist movement in art where at the time academicism was the primary art style. This led to him being declined the opportunity to display his art in the Paris Salon exhibitions where academicism was the primary style of art. Monet and his colleagues chose to exhibit their work independently unified in their independence from the Paris Salon. Their art sought not to be in opposition to other art, instead they followed their own path. Monet and impressionism was an active force. As modern art was avant-garde and gained more power, academic art lost favour and was seen as sentimental, clichéd, conservative, non-innovative, bourgeois, and “styleless.” Art critic Clement Greenberg stated that all academic art is “kitsch”. To paint in the academic style was no longer creative but mimicry. It sought to “be like” an academic style painting rather than to create novel perspectives.

The word “kitsch” perfectly encapsulates the feeling. Kitsch was a modern phenomenon which coincided with the industrial revolution and the mass production of modern materials, causing an oversaturation of art produced for the popular taste. According to Roger Scruton, “Kitsch is fake art, expressing fake emotions, whose purpose is to deceive the consumer into thinking (s)he feels something deep and serious.” In this case no kitsch art object is a creation, all art is a simulacra, it has the appearance of creation while having disemboweled the substance of creation – newness. A kitsch piece of art is born of a reactive force, not an active force.

Modern fundamental Christianity (for the most part) can be thought of as a reactive force. Defining itself through opposition of other active forces, the demonizing of cultural movements such as Rock and Roll, particular films, and particular groups of people such as atheists. Or the opposition of the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, the American Civil Rights Movement, the legalisation of gay marriage, the Gay Rights Movement, the LGBTQ movements, and so on. Its implicit motto is “don’t be like them”, and “them” always changes (paradoxically this is in opposition to the origins of the Christian story, one of radical inclusion not exclusion). Through opposition and negation it seeks to define itself. Fundamentalists define themself by that which they oppose or exclude. In this way modern Christianity has not created itself but it is propped itself up by that which it negates. Inevitably, once the active forces it opposes has formed part of the fabric of our culture, fundamental Christianity can no longer oppose those active forces without ostracizing themselves from culture and so will “tolerate” it but not before seeking another fringe minority to demonize and oppose

The concept of reactive forces can serve as a metaphor for many other concepts; one example is mimicry. When we experience someone who is clearly mimicking – or attempting to mimic – some essence, feeling or famous persona, we become uneasy. A leader who tries to embody a powerful persona or theme can be felt as deceptive by observers. A speech where one (consciously or unconsciously) tricks the listener into thinking she feels something deep, serious and profound through mimicking profound language rather than expressing their true experience often feels substanceless and can make the audience, who truly listen, feel uneasy. There is a shell, or husk, of an idea, but its execution lacks substance. A profound speech might draw an audience out of their individual selves and feel part of a bigger narrative. A superficially profound speech decorated with deepities might do the opposite. It makes the audience feel conscious of themselves and the space they occupy. We notice only the appearance of something powerful and genuine, but it somehow feels performative.

A house with its walls decorated with tired quotes such as  “Live, Laugh Love” or “Home isn’t a Place, it is a Feeling” may have once provoked reflection and new ways of living but now might hardly receive a glance or might provoke a dismissive eye roll. A beach house decorated with shells, driftwood, braided ropes, surf boards and white-washed cupboards was once a creative, expressive revelation. Now it only mimics what a beach house might look like, often feeling hollow and empty rather than expressive. A simulacra.

Similarly a physiotherapist who is trying to be a physiotherapist has deceived themselves that there is a way to be. Like Sartre’s Waiter with Bad Faith, we act inauthentically, by yielding to the external pressures of society to adopt false values and disown our own innate freedom as sentient human beings. As a physiotherapist our movements and conversation might be a little too “physio-esque”. Our voice oozes with an eagerness to inform, correct, and educate; we demonstrate exercises rigidly and ostentatiously; our movements a little too precise, a little too certain. It is a clear give away, our exaggerated behaviour illustrates that we are play acting as a physiotherapist, as an object in the world: an automaton whose essence is to be a physiotherapist. When you concern yourself with striving to be a physiotherapist you become exactly that, a person striving to be a physiotherapist. A kitsch physiotherapist. And the inauthenticity is felt by those we serve.

When one creates a powerful persona not in reaction to another force but through creation, it has the potential to move us and create a space which allows other things to come into being.

Monet was not trying to be Monet. Michael Jackson was not trying to be Michael Jackson. Martin Luther King was not trying to be Martin Luther King. They were following their path, creating rather than reacting.

We could conceive of our lives as unfolding by the same two forces. People are in a dynamic relationship with active and reactive forces and we ourselves might imagine inhabiting and enacting an active or reactive force. This means we can be in the world in an active or reactive way. In some ways we might only oppose other active forces. We might oppose a political movement or a religious institution or a particular group of people, or our spouse or our family, and so on. In other words we may define ourselves through who we are not, and this is exactly what we often do. However, this gives us a limited repertoire. We can then only conceive of ourselves by our limited constitution to conceive things to oppose. The greater one’s constitution the greater their sense of self. This reminds me of Richard Dawkins, an intelligent self assured biologist and atheist well known for his criticism of religion. Atheist from Latin atheos meaning “without god”. He defines himself as opposing the belief in a god. He is defined not by that which he is, but by that which he is not. Much like fundamental christianity which he opposes, Richard Dawkins is a reactive force.

The question I am interested in is how might we constitute ourselves as active forces. How do we follow our own path, create new ways of being, and create more room for newness.

We could think of Pain as an active force. It does what it does. It creates its own path and allows new ways of being to emerge. It does not seek to oppose or destroy but just does what it does. We might be compelled to call it a creative force, making what is familiar strange, bringing with it new perspectives and new ways of being. Often unpredictable and unprovoked, causing much frustration to those experiencing persistent pain.

Naturally when we are in pain we become a reactive force, reacting and opposing pain. This is useful momentarily to have our whole being justified by the opposition of pain when the pain might threaten our existential integrity. But when pain persists and if we become inhabited as a reactive force our lives transform from one of creation to one of reaction – we become defined by that which we oppose. When pain is what we oppose, our very lives become a reaction to pain.

In this space we might no longer conceive ourselves as being able to see any way out, we might make the conclusion that there is no other way to be and that this is the only way we could be. This is a state of “stuckness”.

To reimagine ourselves as an active force is to regain our ability to create new ways of being in the world despite pain. It is to affirm difference. It is to trust that we are constantly emerging and therefore we have what it takes to create pathways in new directions which we could not have predicted.

We will be tempted to plan or think up a new way of being, but planning and predicting undercuts creativity. If we could plan, think up, or recognize a “new way” then it isn’t new, it is merely regurgitated and wrapped in new packaging. Creativity is an event which occurs to us through experimentation not prediction.

How might we as therapists be active forces rather than reactive forces. How might we as therapists support those in pain to become active forces rather than reactive forces?

Eduan Breedt

Thanks to Ed for a thought provoking read! Sharing his insights and interest in philosophy, art and creativity is far removed from the everyday stuff we talk about in physiotherapy. I hope it sparks some curiosity in our fellow physiotherapists around the globe.

Thanks for having a read


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