“Religion is the opiate of the people” ~ on why pain relief is important for all of us

Religion is the opiate of the people” ~ on why pain relief is important for all of us

Marx’s words on religion has surely been one of the most quoted of sound-bites and possibly the most misunderstood and mistranslated. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opium_of_the_people

Main article: Marxism and religion

The quotation, in context, reads as follows (emphasis added):

The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower.[1]

I’m a fan of opiates. Opiates are what can make impossible pain bearable; they can ease the inevitable exit from this life, changing it from what can be screaming agony for days to a relatively peaceful death. They can soften chronic pain enough that life can go on. If you have ever had any major surgery, then you know the value of morphine.

As a society we have become brainwashed into toughing it out, believing that any sort of softening is wimping out, that is shows moral failure, a character flaw. The ability to endure pain without reaching for help is seen as something admirable. Some years ago, when I was at the height of my battle with endometriosis and depression, a colleague said sneeringly at me, “You take too many pills, girl.” At the time, I was taking nothing other than the bare minimum of pain relief that allowed me to get through my teaching day without passing out in pain. She had assumed that I was also taking anti-depressants and was passing judgement that I must therefore be weak and I really ought to just ‘man up’, grit my teeth and stop being a wuss. I wasn’t taking anti-depressants, not because I believed that to do so made me weak but because I’d found the side effects out weighed the very small benefit they might have had.

This illustrates what has become a strong undercurrent in our society, a hidden belief that we must push our selves beyond the pain, beyond the limits of our minds and bodies or become worthless. Media stories are jam packed with so-called inspirational stories of people who didn’t let their disabilities stop them from following their dreams. We are encouraged to see these stories as examples of how if someone with no legs can become and do what they want, then surely we can also achieve greatness.

I’ve discovered that pushing yourself when you are in pain is not always a good thing. In fact, it can be very damaging indeed. Pain is a warning from your body. It’s not a barrier to push through. It’s a very clear warning that you are about to exceed your limits. We tend to think of our bodies as somehow elastic, with endless rebound. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is the biggest lie.

We have become a people aspiring to be superheroes. Whether in physical ways or in mental ones, we’re constantly exhorted to push push push past our pain. Well, I’ve begun to believe that this way leads to more pain. The effects of chronic pain on brain chemistry are well documented. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=how-chronic-pain-affects-memory-mood . We’re accustomed to the belief that toughing it out makes us stronger as people but the evidence is it weakens us in very real, physical ways.

For many years the quote from Marx has been bandied about as a denigration of religion. Until I read it in full, I saw it as such. But my own health has made me try to re-evaluate the problem of pain and pain relief and putting it into the context of world health, I’ve begun to wonder something. Life is painful, and no one gets out of it alive. So why do we fight against things that ease suffering?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opium_of_the_people

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2 thoughts on ““Religion is the opiate of the people” ~ on why pain relief is important for all of us

  1. … putting it into the context of world health …
    A very strong point at the end.

    I witness depression as a collective problem in this idiotic ‘fight the weakness’ culture, individually suffered. Thanks for posting the Marx quote.
    Of course Marx, too, had an ideal, a social one. Yearning for a state of harmony and perfection seems to be inborn in us, so it’s bound to exist as a memory or vision within, even if it can’t be evidenced.

  2. I hated my pain. The back problems, the two torn retinas and now the irritable bowel syndrome.

    But at a Buddhist dharma talk we discussed how to “embrace” the pain. Treat it with kid gloves. Offer love and compassion as a mother would to a child’s wound or illness.

    How easier it then becomes to help the sufferings of others when we first look at and try to accept and care for the suffering of our selves. As Thich Nhat Hanh said, and I paraphrase, “How can you love another if you don’t know how to love yourself?”

    Do not go easy into that gentle night. But don’t “rage” against it either. Be as gentle as the night. Be as gentle as yourself deserves you to be!

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