For My Pains, a World of Sighs

Let me be clear, I do not like pain. It’s nothing personal –I mean it’s probably good for something, otherwise it would have disappeared like gills and dorsal fins in the grand scheme of human things. It’s just that it always seems to hang out with stuff I wouldn’t even approach on a guided tour -things with long Latin names like osteomyelitis and post-herpetic neuralgia. Oh yes, and heart attack –although come to think of it, ‘heart’ doesn’t sound very Latin. Pain does, however –it is from the Latin poena which means penalty. I don’t want one of those, either.

No, I simply do not trust pain. It’s not a matter of lapsed faith in it, or anything, nor does this atheism derive from a privileged agnosis either – I suspect I was privy to it in my youth as much as any other non-academic miscreant. It’s just that as an older, wiser adult who is still in possession of many of his parts, I have ceased to accept its suzerainty –on paper, at least.

In fact, throughout my sovereign years, I was led to believe in the carrot-not-the-stick principle: that reward, not pain was the prime motivator. Alas, perhaps I was naïve; perhaps I was too desirous of a reward.

But, as I said, the word ‘pain’ didn’t even hint at any connection to bonuses when I was growing up. It seemed all bad, and my friends and I understood that. Yet wouldn’t you know, some philosophers have contended that pain should not be viewed negatively. As Nietzsche wrote, ‘Only great pain is, as the teacher of great suspicion, the ultimate liberator of the spirit…I doubt whether such pain improves us-but I do know it deepens us.’

Okay, maybe… But I still don’t have to like it. Who would, especially if there is no incentive, especially if it is used as punishment –without the carrot, I mean?

This whole thing about incentivization arose because of my inability to resist the title of an article in the BBC Future series: I was curious about how they defined will-power.

The article described a device that uses so-called operant conditioning to discourage whatever technological behaviour you decide is undesirable. It comes in the form of a band you wear on your wrist that somehow knows, like Santa’s elves, when you’re being naughty and administers a jolt of electricity. So, as did Pavlov’s dogs that learned to salivate at the sound of a bell, you also learn –although not to salivate. The whole idea seems demonic. Masochistic. And I’m still not convinced that reward wouldn’t be the better motivator. Punishment is too off-putting to work.

And anyway, I think of that particular wrist band as excessively tribal: it just talks to things in its own tech family -things it knows it can sync with. It would likely be useless on a too-buttery mound of mashed potatoes, and unable to figure out whether you ate three, not two cookies for dessert. As you might have guessed, my will-power lapses are not with technology -I have never understood that well enough to gorge on it. Food and I go back a longer way, however.

For some reason, the studies they quote in the article seemed to embrace the concept of suffering to succeed, so, in hopes of updating my willpower, I thought I would adapt the punishment dogmatism to consumption issues –some form of non-painful aversion therapy, perhaps. But, short of a hidden, unmashed lump in the potatoes, or a clump of semi-solidified hair buried randomly subsurface –both of which I would probably just swallow undeterred- I found the problem singularly perplexing. I finally decided to hide three fragments of pre-chilied-potato as a kind of fifth column approach. I settled on the Peach Ghost Scorpion, because it’s yellow and I figured it would blend in with the extra butter I always use.

All that happened, of course, was an obsessive inspection of every yellowed lump I encountered. I managed to isolate all three within a minute and then, after eating everything on the plate, had an extra cookie to celebrate.

But, abashed yet undeterred, I decided to punish myself again at breakfast the next morning. Normally I have a toasted bagel with peanut butter on the theory that I’m really just eating protein –I buy bagels embedded with those little seeds to assuage any guilt emanating from the bread part. The really clever thing, though, was on that morning I only put the peanut butter on one half. The reasoning -okay, the excuse– is a little trickier I suppose, but I figured I was cutting the calories in half… Well, to make up for any loss of valuable protein, I did add a bit more peanut butter on the non-punished half -but hey.  At any rate, it seemed right, and I kind of enjoyed eating the naked part -although it meant I had to go for a walk after breakfast to pick the seeds out of my teeth. Oh well, even without the added weight of guilt, I guess  I still needed to shed a few pounds.

I don’t think punishment works on everyone. Of course, I always knew that; I don’t know why I thought it would be different this time. You have to stick by your principles. Know thyself, was the advice of the oracles at Delphi.

Finally, it came to me in something less than a blinding flash that if I wanted to change my eating habits, I would have to do it with carrots, not sticks… Uhmm, make that rewards­ –carrots always repeat on me. But potatoes don’t, and cookies don’t. So there you have it -an amicable solution: more of one and less of the other. It’s just a question of finding the right balance -and knowing that cookies weigh less than potatoes…

So with my formula, both sides get a little of what they want, but not all of it. It is, I suppose, a little bit of stick, but I was careful to allow some leeway with the cookies. I find I get more cooperation that way.


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