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The Old Guard and the Pain of Immortality

**Warning: The following contains SPOILERS for Netflix’s The Old Guard**

Just 4 months old, Steven Pete’s parents noticed he was chewing on his tongue while he was teething. Chewing on your tongue HURTS, which should have been a clue to Steven to knock it off.

Concerned, his parents took him to a pediatrician. Perplexed, the doctor put a cigarette lighter underneath Steven’s foot, but Steven didn’t even flinch as the heat caused his skin to blister. Seeing that Steven didn’t respond to pain–ever–the doctors made a diagnosis: congenital analgesia, a rare genetic condition that inhibits the body’s ability to feel physical pain.

Steven’s parents were terrified for his safety, but they tried to allow for a normal childhood where they could. Still, the things we’d take for granted were a real risk for Steven, as when he blissfully continued to roller-skate on a broken leg, only stopping because people were pointing at him because his pants were covered in blood from where the bone came out.

Steven, now approaching 40, often lends himself to research in order to find a cure for congenital analgesia.

Pain is necessary for human survival. It’s a warning to us that we are in danger because our bodies are sustaining damage. Without pain receptors to signal for you to get your hand off that stove pronto, you’d simply leave your flesh there to cook.

Without pain, you’d not feel a piece of grit in your eye, which could lead to real cornea damage. Broken bones go untreated; hot water leads to scalding; infections are left to flare up; etc.

Not being able to feel pain meant that Steven missed a lot of school due to injury and illness. When he was a Kindergartener,  his parents were reported for child abuse and he was taken away from his home by child protective services. He remained in the state’s care for two months, and during that time he broke his leg (again), which made them realize his parents and the pediatricians were telling the truth about his genetic condition.

Kids would pick fights with him, saying something along the lines of, “If you can’t feel pain, you will once I’m done with you.” But then this already difficult story turned tragic. Steven had a twin brother, Chris, who took his own life. Although Chris couldn’t feel the pain in his back and joints, that didn’t mean the damage and scar tissue wasn’t there. Faced with ever declining health, Chris felt pain of a wholly different type and tragically put an end to it.

How do I transition from that? Only indelicately, so let’s just go there. Those who suffer from congenital analgesia remind me of Netflix’s The Old Guard. Literally immortal, Charlize Theron and the Old Guard were conditioned from centuries of their injuries magically healing, so they rushed headlong into danger as if they can feel no pain.

But the movie illustrated that immortality was the darnedest thing. Although the Old Guard lived forever, those they were closest to certainly did not. On top of the intense loneliness was the feeling of loss compounded decade after decade as they’d not change but the world around them did.

Take this story from the movie: Andy had an immortal companion who was locked in an Iron Maiden, forced to drown over and over at the bottom of the sea. All those emotions–loss, grief, guilt, abandonment–certainly became pain of another type, something worse than a hot stove for many.

Yet the Old Guard rushed into battle as if they suffered from congenital analgesia. Never mind the fact that that much violence itself would trigger some serious PTSD. Imagine having your body pierced time and again to the point of death, yet you heal up and just shrug it off like you didn’t feel a thing.

In our story, the Old Guard is like young Steven Pete who was roller skating on a broken leg, not a care in the world until others point out the bloody wound.

As you think about The Old Guard, spare a thought for Steven Pete and his tragically departed bother, Chris. And next time you accidentally bite the inside of your cheek and it hurts like the dickens, don’t curse the pain; remember instead that it serves an important function in keeping our bodies out of harm’s way, even if it’s to remind you to slow down, enjoy life, and chew your food like a civilized human and not like a raging barbarian.

A couple things are true here: A) I certainly wish Steven the best, as do I the others like him who suffer from congenital analgesia and B) The Old Guard was a fantastic movie. None of us are immortal; we all feel pain, one way or the other.

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