“It is easy to stand a pain, but difficult to stand an itch.” -Chang Ch’ao
I came across this quote a while ago and remembered it for its cleverness, but it was only today that I actually saw it in action. I was in the car with my knee-high riding boots on, and I got a rather persistent itch on my ankle. Knowing it would be difficult to reach my hand all the way down my boot to scratch it, I recalled this quote and decided I would try to resist the itch, to see if I could do it.
At first, it was okay. It was unpleasant, but tolerable. It got worse, though, as my body became desperate to get rid of the invading itch. My foot started twitching involuntarily, the itch intensified, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how badly I wanted to scratch it. Before long, I surrendered and scratched my ankle, unable to withstand the torment of an unscratched itch. Turns out the quote is true. But what is it about itches that make them so unbearable?
First of all, what’s different about pain and itches that makes one so much easier to withstand?
- Pain: (n) physical suffering or distress
- caused by some sort of physical force
- generally very constant, doesn’t go away until its source is removed
- you can get used to it
- there’s always a reason for it
- it drives you to seek comfort
- Itch: (n) an irritation or tickling sensation
- can spring up out of nowhere
- may come and go or flare and recede, not necessarily constant
- demands attention so that you can’t get used to it
- not always a reason for it
- it drives you to inflict pain (i.e. scratching)
Itches are more irrational than pain. Some itches are thanks to rashes or skin irritations, but others just come up out of nowhere, like the one on my ankle. You can understand pain, because there’s always a reason for it. You don’t feel a random pain for no reason. And look at the last points. When you feel pain, you look for relief from it. When you feel an itch, you use pain to get rid of it by scratching. Pain makes you want to help yourself. An itch makes you want to hurt yourself.
My point is this: heroes don’t just fall because of the pain they’re put through. They fall because of the itches, the small little things that wear at their hearts, rising up out of nowhere and demanding attention. A hero can tolerate the pain of battle wounds, but he or she also wants to seek healing from it. A hero can’t tolerate the itch of fear, and he or she seeks to get rid of it by destroying him/herself.
There are a lot of itches that a hero might face, but they all seem to be a type of fear. A fear that they’ve done something wrong, that they’ll fail, that they’ll die, that others will die, or maybe just a fear of the dark. Fear sometimes comes up out of nowhere, escalating out of control and driving you mad, until you can’t take it anymore. Fear is the ultimate itch, and the ultimate instrument for a hero’s downfall.
So how do you get rid of an itch? Well, you scratch it.
You have to get hurt to get stronger, and so maybe you’ve got to hurt yourself to get past the itch. Maybe you have to tell yourself the very thing you don’t want to hear to make yourself realize your fears are irrational. Maybe you have to throw yourself off the edge of the cliff just to realize that the fall isn’t as far as you thought. By forcing yourself to do something you’re afraid to do, you realize how exaggerated your fears really were. Or you at the very least get the strength to overcome them.
Pain is easy to handle if you’ve got the willpower, but itches and fear are always difficult to manage. They spring up from nowhere and do nothing but grow the longer you leave them unattended, but we can scratch them away if we’ve got the bravery to do it. It might hurt a little, but it’s worth it.
Where do you think is the worst place to get an itch?
May you always have the strength of heart to scratch away your itches and withstand the worst of pain.