A Distractable Mind

Connecting Of Human Bondage and Value…

Most human beings have an inexplicable capacity to endure and adapt to enormous pain, either from illness or injury, from disabilities, or from cruelty at the hands of other human beings.

Connecting the novel Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham and the word “value” lead me to consider this. Of the many themes and images in this coming-of-age novel, the one that has remained most clearly with me is the main character Philip’s club foot which was not corrected and which he had to endure all the days of his life. clubfoot And despite the pain and suffering his foot caused for him, he did adapt and was able to find a happy and satisfying life for himself in the end as his attention focused less and less on his foot.

In the mid- to late-1990’s as a home hospice nurse I was daily witness to cancer victims in pain. I tried to learn everything I could about pain management to be effective at the person’s bedside as the eyes and ears of the physician .  Besides medical interventions, one of the things I studied was music therapy for pain management. Patients experienced a decrease in pain perception as they listened to music that appealed to them.


The underlying reason for its effectiveness is a distraction from the pain, a shifting of the person’s attention to something else, the same as Philip shifting his attention away from his foot and towards growing in a career and human relationships.

The same principle applies to the natural childbirth techniques I learned and which allowed me to focus on a painting on the hospital room wall and on my breathing, and not on the pain of my abdomen in a vise every couple minutes.  I was consciously shifting my attention.

And I have seen this capacity exhibited unconsciously by my 4 year old daughter during her cancer treatment when the nurses would pierce her tiny arm to draw blood. I looked at her un-crying face which did not see me, but seemed to be somewhere else until the pain was ended.

The world has so much pain and cruelty that people would go mad if we had not been given this capacity.  In the novel War and Peace, Pierre a Russian aristocrat is taken prisoner by Napoleon’s invading French army and is forced to march in the cold without shoes.  I chanced to read this particular part of the novel as I was thinking through this blog.  Tolstoy expresses more eloquently than I how Pierre could endure the pain of his wounded feet and keep marching.  The same way Philip endured the pain of his “wounded” foot and kept marching through life.

“… by evening his [Pierre’s] feet were still more frightful to look at.  But he did not look at them and thought of other things. Only now did Pierre understand the full force of human vitality and the saving power of the shifting of attention that has been put in man…” (War and Peace, Vol. IV, Part Three, Chap. XII).


The frustrating tendency of your mind to get distracted and stop paying attention, you may someday value as a precious gift in the face of pain.







**The Connecting blog has been a valuable experience for me for the past 6 months.  I hope reading it has brought you some pleasure.  I have learned that what excites me most is connecting thoughts from old literature to modern life.  My approach to the Connecting blog for the first half of 2014 will not be to connect two randomly chosen topics, but rather to connect whatever classic literature I am currently reading to the modern work, family, or personal life as a new thinking and writing experiment.

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