“When is pain worst?” an is important and deeply related question which is, fortunately for us, much easier to examine directly. I feel worse to have a papercut than it is to have an equally painful, but ultimately more damaging cut elsewhere. I feel worse to have a chronic pain that will not go away than I do when I feel a brief pain that goes away shortly after. I feel worse if I am unable to fix the injury that is causing me pain. It feels unfair, awful and even unbearable to ache for days during a bad bout of the flu. I know that the pain doesn’t serve me any useful purpose, it isn’t going to make me any less likely to catch the flu, which makes it all the worse. Likewise, if I’ve hurt my foot and it keeps on hurting even as I walk over to the cabinet to get out a bandage and some disinfectant, that is worse than a pain that hurts just as bad for a second and then stops once I’ve stopped doing the thing that injured me.
This seems to indicate that pain is worst when there is a conflict between my objective assessment of my injuries and what my “gut” tells me about my injuries through the proxy of pain. There was a post somewhere on this site, perhaps by Yvain and I’d thank anyone that could find it and link it, about how there is not a single unitary self, but rather many seperate selves. I suspect that the main reason why pain is bad is due to a conflict between these many parts of me. Pain is at its worst when “rational, far-mode assessor of injury” me is at odds with “hindbrain, near-mode tabulator of pain nerves” me and the former has no way to get the near-mode brain to stop sending pain signals even after my initial panic at being injured has been overridden and all useful steps towards recovery and preventing future injuries have been taken, while the latter can’t keep the far-mode brain from constantly ignoring these dire warnings about how my nerves are reporting bad things and how my skin is cut and how I’m probably bleeding and how it hasn’t stopped and I need to lie still and wait to heal. The two argue in circles somewhere in the back of my mind leaving me with a certain unease that I can’t but at rest by either laying still and resting or by ignoring my pain and going on with my day.
That is why pain is bad. Because, on some level or another, it causes different parts of me to come into conflict, neither being able to overcome the other (and neither should, for I shudder to think of what would happen if one did win out) and neither being able to let me rest.