Two young students sat in the shade of an oak-tree on a beautiful summer’s day.
“I have to write this essay,” explained Sue, “about the theory that life seeks out pain, using the analogy of an oak-tree.” She touched the rugged trunk. “Like this one, I suppose. The idea is that the oak wants the axe.”
“The tree breathes out oxygen for us,” said Tim. “This doesn’t tie up with wanting to be axed.”
“Why not?” asked Sue. “In any case, the tree isn’t conscious that it breathes oxygen.”
“In that case, it isn’t conscious enough to want to be axed!”
The students were sitting on the grassy ground beneath the tree – or rather, on its roots. The tree supported them, as it supported the birds and squirrels and insect life in its branches.
“I think,” said Sue, “that often you go through pain because you want to achieve something through it … birth of a child … salvation of mankind … ”
Tim grunted. “There can be more masochistic reasons. But supposing you’re right, continuing the example of the oak, you would have to say that it feels it will have achieved something through being axed. This gives more point to what I said just now.
If the oak is useful breathing out oxygen, it doesn’t need to feel useful through being chopped down.”
“But it’s true that the oak isn’t conscious enough to be a good analogy anyway.”
The leaves of the oak-tree stirred, on this calm day.
“A better example,” said Tim, “is the insect – the moth that keeps flying back to the light although its wings get burnt.”
“It only does this because of the way its eyes are constructed – many faceted prisms so that it can’t steer away from the light.”
“So is it only humans who deliberately seek out pain?”
“Do you remember that time, Tim, when you said you were completely numb with grief? You cut your arm with a knife. You said that you did it to get some sort of sensation.”
“Oh, for God’s sake!” He sprang to his feet. “Don’t bring that up now!”
“I’m sorry, Tim!”
But he realised in a moment that she had only spoken in the spirit of truth. She ran to catch up with him and the two students departed, laughing and chasing each other.
The oak-tree stirred, dimly trying to feel sensation in its stiff limbs. Certainly, if it could desire, it did not desire to be cut down and lose these dim sensations in death. The dryad, the spirit of the oak stepped out of the tree for a moment and said:
“Life seeks out pain – or rather, seeks out sensation - so as to come into consciousness.”
The oak-tree was like the spirit’s body, but she was more detached from it than we are from our bodies. Pain is an intensity of sensation – a sensation that comes when it is needed as a danger signal, or a signal to give birth, or when a lesser sensation has been ignored. Sensation only becomes pain when it is ignored or, more often, when it cannot be felt at first. This is the reason why the feeling the dryad experienced in the tree was pain. She had to know an intensity of sensation – like pain – to enhance the dim sensation within the oak.
It was the students’ conversation that had led her to such an intense awareness of this. Otherwise she would have dreamed on as part of the oak-tree, diffused back into other tree life if anything happened to the tree.