Off topic

Mind your language!


“Words are pale shadows of forgotten names. As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men. Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts.”
― Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind

So much has been written about language, and I am not a linguist. I am, however, often accused of being pedantic because I like to use words with precision.

In the world of pain rehabilitation/management/treatment/care (see what I did there?!) certain words seem to spark a huge debate. Words like “pain”, “nociception”, “suffering”, “harm”, “avoidance”, “catastrophising” all get a regular hammering in online discussions. Less frequently, words like “guru”, “expert”, “master”, “authority”, “sage” reach the discussion boards and in the same way as “pain”, elicit an almost visceral response.

Before I begin commenting in earnest, I want to preface this piece by making it absolutely clear that I am not commenting on any particular person, organisation, group, business, or endeavour. Please read the whole piece thoroughly before commenting!

I’m not an expert, authority, sage, master or guru. I have years of experience and lots of learning, I’ve studied a lot, I’ve worked with lots of people living with pain, and I’ve worked across a wide range of settings – but they’re all in NZ. I work in an academic institution. I teach postgraduate pain and pain management from a certain perspective. I encourage my students and readers of this blog, as I do all the people I’ve tried to help, to always, always read and be critical of what I say.

I don’t know whether it’s part of growing up in the 1970’s, or it’s the religious upbringing I had, or whether it’s a New Zealand characteristic, but self promotion and the idea that I’m “more important” or more authoritative than anyone else is anathema to me. It’s probably why I give information away, and why I’m not a business owner.  Whatever the case I really dislike the idea of guruism. As a concept. As it is applied to healthcare.

When I think of the word guru, I think of someone who believes he or she knows more than normal people, someone who wants (or has) followers (disciples). It smacks of a lack of acknowledging that the more we know the more questions we have and the less we feel we actually know. The word puts the person on a pedestal.

Some people have been my gurus. People I’ve admired, wanted to emulate, who have influenced the way I think about things. I’ve put those people in a position of influence over me. I need to remind myself to be critical, to think independently, to hold different opinions if I’ve thought about the things they say. That’s not easy to do – highly charismatic people are great at influencing me, and in a field of practice where there is great uncertainty, it’s tempting to grasp what looks like an appealing concept and run with it. At this point I’m reminded of the quote: “For every problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong” (HL Mencken).

What strikes me is that guru is a term derived from Hindi (Sanskrit, actually) and according to Wikipedia and a few other etymology references, was a term accorded to “one who dispels the darkness and takes towards light, traditionally a reverential figure to the student, with the guru serving as a “counselor, who helps mold values, shares experiential knowledge as much as literal knowledge, an exemplar in life, an inspirational source and who helps in the spiritual evolution of a student.” (Thanks Wikipedia) Wikipedia goes on to say “the term is sometimes used in a derogatory way to refer to individuals who have allegedly exploited their followers’ naiveté.”

I see a couple of risks associated with identifying or being identified as a guru. The first is that we believe it ourselves. That we have the knowledge to “dispel the darkness”, and the right to “mould values… an exemplar, an inspirational source”. This can tempt us to be less aware of our own biases, to accept them or make exceptions for them. It can encourage us to think our view is “right”, to stop constantly asking ourselves those difficult questions.

The second is that our followers may do the same. Follow what we say without thinking independently. To read what we write without reading others. To forget to cross-check our work. Add to this the reality that most people who are adopted as gurus have years of experience and knowledge that underpins their superficially-simple (or should that be deceptively simple?) and readily digested approach. This experience and knowledge often can’t be replicated, or isn’t even explicit to adherents – so rather than a multi-layered and complex emergence of understanding, followers may simply pick and choose sound-bites, and apply them liberally and without the nuances the originator brought to the concept. Tell me you haven’t see this in pain rehabilitation over the years! And then, of course, comes the fighty talk and internet wars and tribalism we’ve seen so often.

The third problem or risk is that the people we try to help, those with pain, can be vulnerable to the hype. They too can believe that they “should” respond to the simple message, and if their own experience doesn’t accord with the “wisdom” of the guru, they can begin to blame themselves – and at times, be blamed by adherents.

There are undoubtedly other risks, but these are my key concerns about anyone being viewed as an expert or guru.

Every word begins with a few meanings within a certain context. Then the words grow a life of their own. Words are sociocultural – they have power despite “sticks and stones will break my bones but words with never harm me”. Words continue to acquire meaning and subtle use-changes over time. People in different parts of the world, of different backgrounds, at different ages and in different settings will use words quite differently. For me, guru is a word I really dislike, but for others it’s a legitimate term to describe themselves and their word. The thing is, whether we like it or not, the word has both good and not-so-good associations for people. And both matter. Guru might speak of “aha! here’s someone who can help”, or “a group I feel comfortable with – my tribe”, or “expert with lots of knowledge”. But it might also just as equally speak of hype, inflated ego, a need to be worshiped and collect adherents, blind allegiance.

Along with thinking hard about how I want to represent myself while writing this blog, I’ve also been pondering a list of various ways to describe pain and the neurobiological and experiential apparatus underpinning the experience.

Defining pain is incredibly difficult – while we’ve all experienced pain, we’ve never been able to share the “what it is like” to experience pain. Our personal experience of pain is within contexts we’re familiar with – for many people it really is a short-term experience, a warning of potential damage or threat to bodily integrity (and social, too), a symptom of “something else” that must be attended to, and something that will be resolved once that “something” is fixed. For others it is a stigmatising experience.

For some it’s an experience used to represent going through an ordeal and coming out the other side having learned something. For still others it’s a deeply scarring, personally disruptive experience that isolates and depresses and angers. For some it’s a mystery to be solved. For others it’s a neutral, uncomfortable yes but not distressing experience because it’s familiar and no longer understood to be representing anything much.

Most of these contextual experiences reflect appraisals of the ineffable experience, rather than distinguishing this experience from other experiences such as joy, hunger, fatigue. And I think it’s useful to remember the purpose of a definition – in the case of IASP pain definition, it has allowed researchers, clinicians, and people living with pain to acknowledge that nociception (and associated processes that contribute to our experience of pain) is not the same as pain. And that behaviours we do when we experience pain are also not pain. And that how we view or appraise our experience influences both the experience itself, and our response to it. And FWIW I use the term “it” as a placeholder for “the experience we know as pain”. 

Given that words are fluid, why on earth am I trying to argue the toss about how I view words like “guru” and “pain”? Because in this context, where people are talking with one another, clarity of meaning aids us to understand the concept we’re discussing. And because this is a particular context. And this is my opportunity to express my opinion. Readers will undoubtedly interpret what I’ve written in their own way. What I would ask is that people don’t interpret this post as having intentions I don’t have. After all, as the author, I’m probably the only person who can determine my intentions for what I write.


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Heartjolts and gap-toothed smiles


Each time I hear a rumble-rattle-creak my heart jolts.  It might be the middle of the night, middle of the day or middle of my shower – these aftershocks are unpredictable and startling.  Yesterday’s 5.1 aftershock at 7:50 or so was a definite heartjolt – halfway through my shower!  With each one, that ‘living on the edge’ feeling comes back – do I need to drop, grab and hold?  Then ‘relax, breathe, calm’ as it passes.

Other heartjolts last longer.  Each time I drive past another building tilting on a crazy angle, with terrible cracks and fallen bricks.  Another red ‘condemned’ sign.  Demolition gangs in high-viz vests tearing away at the remaining skeletons of buildings that were hand-made, in an era when each wall was hand-crafted, each ornamental element had a function. Like rotting teeth, the stumps of our heritage appear between more modern constructions, waiting to be cleared away and refilled.

I’ve always had a sense of belonging in Christchurch.  I’m not native to the South Island, but an import from North Island.  Worse than that, I came direct from Auckland – not known to respect elder status in architecture.  Christchurch has had a profoundly peaceful and centering effect on my spirit.  It hasn’t the traffic plagues, nor the sprawl across the landscape that Auckland has.  It lacks height, with the exception of the Port Hills and, in the distance, the Southern Alps.  I used to get lost – no landmarks and a peculiar (to me anyway!) use of compass points to aid navigation. ‘If you go east, you’ll hit the sea, if you go west, you’ll hit the mountains’ I was told!  I preferred to use buildings as my anchors.

What I think I loved about Christchurch, and perhaps the aspect that caught my heart the most was a sense of respect for history.  I don’t mean the ‘first four ships’ history, but the way the elderly buildings had been retained and reused.  Take the Arts Centre – a gothic-style ex-university campus, vibrant and pulsing with artists living and creating within its grey stone walls.  The old stone church remodelled into a restaurant.  More recently the energising of back alleys and lanes into bars and clubs and specialty stores – even a brewery.  The humanising effect of brickwork, arches, facades and enormous timber beams on an otherwise concrete and glass environment.

Since Saturday my heart is heavy.  To see my heritage obliterated so quickly, so quickly.  Heartjolts each time I look at another gap.

At the same time – what is overwhelmingly clear is the transcendence of people.  He tangata.  It is people that live in this place, not buildings.  Buildings are artifacts.  While they represent parts of the people we are, they are not us.

And what gives my heart a real heartjolt is the collective resilience of people in my city.  First the workers who have, despite their personal challenges (homes lost, family distressed, even relocation for some) worked so hard to clear roads, restore power, water, sewage, check buildings for integrity, demolish buildings that are unsafe, document the events as they unfold and comfort people who are fearful.  Then the volunteers who have swooped and contributed muscle, sweat and brain to help those in most need.  And finally, those who have picked up the pieces of their ruined homes and, while still awed by the destructive power of Rauamoko, Maori god of the underworld, have been caring for family, friends and self.

What emerges from such shaking and turmoil is often a new sense of resilience.  If we can make it through this, we can make it through anything.  Kids seem to show us this first – time off school is for revelry and sport, great splits in the road are new playgrounds, sand volcanoes are for shovelling and moulding.  A gap-toothed smile from a 6 year old as she pushes her 4 year old brother around on his trike, both covered head to foot in silt and sand gives me a heartjolt.

Today as I look around the cityscape, I want to see those empty ruined spaces as a gap-toothed smile of a city becoming more in tune with people and the land in which we live.

Hutia te rito o te harakeke,
Kei whea te kōmako e kō?
Kī mai ki ahau;
He aha te mea nui o te Ao?
Māku e kī atu,
he tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata

If the heart of the flax bush is removed, where will the bellbird sing?
If I am asked, what is the most important thing in the world;
I would reply,

It is people,

it is people,

it is people.

Briefly off topic


Look what I got up to over the weekend – is this ghoulish or what?!


Just look at how beautifully those bones fit together – strength, flexibility and interconnectedness. Poor ewe…

Bleached by the sun and wind, I’m not sure how this sheep died, but most of it was half-submerged in the sand, with only a few bones carried off by scavengers. The structures are incredible, fitting together with precision and beauty.
The last shot is taken on the Kaitorete Spit looking back towards the hills of Banks Peninsula.

The Virtual Revolution – BBC goodness


Don’t tell me you’re far too sophisticated to capitulate to silly pseudo-psychological tests – I know you do you, you know you want to!
So go ahead and enjoy this one from the BBC The Virtual Revolution and the Web Behaviour Test to find out which animal you are on the internet. I’m a hedgehog (prickly, slow but endearing!!)
…and yes, there is some science to it, and also yes, I’m changing the way I work on the computer as a result.

Christmas glitter and glitz


It’s Christmas Eve, and I’ve been taking things so quietly I haven’t even noticed the rush out in the Real World!  Nevertheless, you can’t avoid the Christmas advertising and the internet Christmassy things, so I haven’t quite missed out on the excitement.

Just a couple of things to while away those hours after you’ve had that full Christmas dinner (at lunchtime of course), and before the Queen’s Christmas message, before indulging in ‘just one more if you insist’…

Firstly, something a little psychological – thanks to PsyBlog, you can find out interesting facts you never knew you never knew – and they’re all scientific!  So go here for the 12 Psychology Studies of Christmas…

If you need a wee treat for yourself, this wonderful video courtesy of YouTube will bring back something of the special spirit of Christmas – and it’s multicultural!

Aaaaahhh! Doesn’t that make Christmas just a little more special?

I’ll be back posting in a week or so – in the meantime, have a wonderful, peaceful Christmas.

…unexpectedly absent


After writing recently about post-surgical pain, I’m unexpectedly going to be having some surgery myself today. I’ll be out of circulation for about a month, and hopefully will be back on deck in the New Year.

To all the readers who visit this blog, thank you! Thank you for the comments, the discussion, and the reward of connecting through the internet.

I’ve met people from all around the world, including some places I’ve never heard of (and couldn’t place on a map!). I’ve discovered that interest in pain management ranges from people who want to sell things to ‘fix it’, people who experience their own pain and want to share their knowledge, and people who are clinicians of all persuasions to some very dear friends who find me via this medium after years being out of touch.

I’m grateful for your thoughts and comments, and hope this coming year will bring more of the same (except a few less spams and I could do without that strange one about the purple crystal and lights from Avanste or whatever it was!).

And for those who live in the Northern Hemisphere – you may well laugh at this, but to us downunder, this is our reality!  Be afraid, be very afraid!