A World Without Pain
“I know the word ‘pain,’ and I know people are in pain, because you can see it,” Joanne Cameron, a seventy-two-year-old retired teacher, told me, in the cluttered kitchen of her century-old stone cottage in the Scottish Highlands. Cameron has never experienced the extremes of rage, dread, grief, anxiety, or fear. She handed a cup of tea to Jim, her husband of twenty-five years, with whom she’s never had a fight. “I see stress,” she continued, “and I’ve seen pain, what it does, but I’m talking about an abstract thing.”
Because of a combination of genetic quirks, Cameron’s negative emotional range is limited to the kinds of bearable suffering one sees in a Nora Ephron movie. If someone tells Cameron a sad story, she cries—“easily! Oh, I’m such a softie.” When she reads about the latest transgression by Boris Johnson or Donald Trump, she feels righteous indignation. “But then you just go to a protest march, don’t you? And that’s all you can do.” When something bad happens, Cameron’s brain immediately searches for a way to ameliorate the situation, but it does not dwell on unhappiness. She inadvertently follows the creed of the Stoics (and of every twelve-step recovery program): Accept the things you cannot change.
In sharp contrast to her near-inability to feel awful, Cameron has an expansive capacity for positive emotions. She is exceedingly loving and affectionate with her husband. When I first came to the door, she greeted me with an embrace, crying, “Ooh, I’m very huggy!” Her seventeen years as a special-education teacher required great reserves of compassion. “I had a Down-syndrome girl—who was actually quite high-functioning—and she would come in every morning and she’d walk up to me and spit in my face, and say, ‘I hate you, Jo Cameron! I hate you!’ And I’d stand there and say, ‘I don’t like being spat on, but I don’t hate you!’ ” Cameron told me, smiling. “Oh, I’ve had some very difficult students. I’ve been bitten; I’ve been spat on; I’ve been kicked!” Over the years, the Camerons have provided short-term foster care for four children. One of them stole all their vacation money from the cookie jar. “She did take things for the sake of taking them,” Cameron said pleasantly. “It took us years to catch up! When eight hundred pounds is gone from your vacation kitty, it takes a long time to recoup.”