I Need My Pain!

There’s nothing like seeing an old friend come up with something awesome. That’s just what I got to do last night, blessedly; at Dixon Place, the experimental performance space on New York’s Lower East Side, I caught a reading of Krista Knight’s new play, Phantom Band. Krista is an amazing young playwright who is now finishing an MFA at UC San Diego, where she occasionally hangs out with my grandfather. Phantom Band is the story of a group of high-school students who dream of creating Santa Cruz, California’s only marching band—and who have to face their deepest pain in the process.

Krista’s going to hate me for this, but the whole second half of the play I couldn’t stop thinking about Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. I did consult our mutual friend Lily, my rare equal in knowledge of Star Trek and also in attendance, and she concurred that I wasn’t totally off-base. The whole intersection is no mere matter of trekkie trivia; it goes straight to the center of the intersection of freedom and suffering and faith and all that.

The relevant character in Phantom Band is Camille, the mysterious blonde from England, with the Queen’s accent, who takes people to the forest and plays them her beautiful siren song while they shout out all the things they don’t want to hear, Primal Scream-style: the junk their parents and the mean football players are always saying to make them feel crappy. Afterward, they feel much better, but they’re also zombie-like; they don’t really hear much of anything and just keep saying, “What?” They’re free. Or are they?

Star Trek V is widely considered the worst of the original-cast Star Trek movies, not least because it was directed by William Shatner himself. Over the years, though, as I’ve dutifully watched it many, many times, I’ve come to like it more and more. Maybe that’s because it’s the “religion” one; the climax of the movie is going to the center of the galaxy to visit “God.” Or maybe because it includes the singing of my favorite song, “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” while Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are eating bourbon and beans over a campfire in Yellowstone.

But none of that’s important here, really. The relevant character in Star Trek V is Sybok, Spock’s long-lost brother. Rather than being a typical emotion-repressing Vulcan, Sybok left his homeworld, embraced his emotions, and became a cult leader. The way he gets cultists is much what Camille does in the woods: he makes people face their pain. Once they do, with his special formula, they become brainwashed and follow his orders. Here’s Sybok showing off his trick on Dr. McCoy:

This is, of course, a familiar feature of religious experience. Buddhism begins with the recognition of suffering in the world and shows it to be illusion. Christianity begins with the repentance of sin and ends with an executed savior. Scientology starts by telling you you’re stressed and ends with—TBA. Psychoanalysis begins on the couch and never ends. Simply confronting these pains at least somewhat more directly than we do in normal, repressive life is so shocking and cleansing that it can change the course of a person’s life for good. It can deliver pure, unshakeable beliefs about how the world works. The price of deliverance is conviction. It’s a simple, but really quite weird fact about human nature, and both Star Trek V and Phantom Band remind us of this.

Is facing your pain and getting it zapped away really such a great thing? I suppose it might be. But with Sybok’s zombies in Star Trek V we’re meant to see something familiar—in the kind of heavy-handed allegory so typical of the franchise, only sharpened by Shatner’s signature lack of subtlety. Maybe you’re meant to see the born-again relative who has figured everything out and wants you to figure it out exactly the same way. Or the suicide cults that folks were all so afraid their kids would join in the ’70s. Or maybe it’s something in yourself, I don’t know. But you know what I mean.

At the end of Phantom Band, the kids realize that they’d rather face the hard stuff in real life than keep being zombies. So they zap out of the trance by shouting to themselves all the painful stuff they’d been la-la-ing out with Camille’s angelic music.

In another striking parallel, that’s almost exactly what Captain Kirk lands on in Star Trek V, with the line from the movie that fans end up quoting to each other probably more than any other: “I need my pain!” It comes a bit later in the same scene we saw earlier.

Dammit, Bones, you’re a doctor. You know that pain and guilt can’t be taken away with a magic wand. They’re the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. [If] we lose them we lose ourselves. I don’t want my pain taken away, I need my pain!

That’s good stuff, isn’t it? Those lines have nourished me a lot over the years. There’s a freedom of its own sort in giving up the hope of pain disappearing like zap. It’s inescapably us. And maybe your pain can drive you, too, to being a daring, reckless, but always successful and heroic starship captain like Captain Shatn—I mean Kirk.

Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.