**These short excerpts come from an article written by Michael Purcell, Senior Lecturer in Systematic Theology at the Divinity School of the University of Edinburgh. I had a chance to meet and chat with him over a few beers at a conference in Rome where I delivered a paper in 2008. He is the doctoral advisor of a friend of mine**

As a migraine sufferer, and as someone who attempts, however ineptly, to empathize with others in their pain, I found these words from an article dealing with a difficult issue in continental thought to be rather poetic on the topic of pain and suffering. So I share. I’ve tried to fill in a few details of meaning in the brackets.

In suffering, there is the submission of the self to that in respect of which the self has no power, the humiliation of the self before its own impossibility [that is, to be without suffering or to control it]. “In suffering reality acts on the in itself of the will, which turns despairingly into total submission to the will of the Other [the cause of suffering, whatever it may be]. In suffering the will is defeated by sickness” (Levinas, Totality and Infinity)…

[S]uffering reveals not only the self’s ultimate impossibility but also reveals the essential passivity of the I before the Other who alone can make my own self-project possible. Despite Heidegger’s insistence on an authentic self which is essentially mine [i.e., my life is not another’s], Dasein’s self-project is impossible when understood in terms of a self which would be origin and initiative; the self is only possible in terms of, and in relation to, the Other. [i.e., I only realize my existence when awoken by an encounter with another; the face of another is a confrontation to which I must respond, but before which I was not aware of my self and the need for a responce. Thus pain is a confrontation, awakening us to the presence of another, whether a person or the cause of pain]…

Here is what is particularly meaningful to me:

The searing pain of migraine is like a spear thrust into the head and coming to a point in the intensity of its pain is something from which we might try to take distance in the reinforcement of gritting teeth or applying intense pressure to our skull to bombard the brain with so many other signals and so lessen the intensity and immediacy of the pain and take some distance from it, but in the end, the pain can neither be reached nor can the self introduce distance. Pain is something other than me which torments me in its immediacy. It is both too close and too far away. It is not that “I have a headache,” but simply pain.

Suffering is so immediate as to be ungraspable, and so distant as to be unreachable.

Michael Purcell, “Grace and the Experience of the Impossible” Blanchot’s ‘Impossible Relation’ as a Prolegomenon to a Theology of Grace” in Philosophy and Theology 10, 2 (1997).

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