Is America deteriorating into a nation of pain junkies, of people who enjoy and even seek out pain only to then lord their noble suffering over others?

Such, it seems, is Hillel Schwartz's dispirited vision of Americans and what he sees as our growing preoccupation with pain ("America's Hurt Instinct," Outlook, March 23).

Schwartz stretches before our eyes a long string of examples he thinks prove his point. Yet, upon closer examination, we realize that his string is in some places twisted and in others so dangerously threadbare that at any moment it may snap.

The author yearns for those good old days when men "rarely flinched under the most grueling torture" and movie actors didn't wear their emotions on their heroic sleeves. Today, he laments, Bogart and those other "masters of the slight smile" have been ousted by the likes of Selleck and Stallone, who "make no bones about suffering."

What Schwartz unwittingly or knowingly ignores is that men's recent willingness to grimace or groan merely reflects one facet of a much larger phenomenon: our society's long- overdue acceptance of men showing emotion, any emotion.

Yes, movie heroes openly express pain -- but don't they also show fear, love, grief and other feelings they used to hide behind that same "slight smile"? Surely the great success of movies such as "Kramer vs. Kramer" or "An Officer and a Gentleman" indicates that many Americans appreciate heroes who overcome their reluctance to express emotion. Schwartz may think this harmful; others obviously find it refreshing and perhaps even courageous.

It's bad enough that we flaunt our pain, continues the author. But we even enjoy it and search for more ways to experience it. We think pain is good for us, that it heals and strengthens us.

To support this contention, he cites, among other things, sadism-as-art in the pages of Penthouse magazine, our desire to "go for the burn'" in our mad pursuit of fitness, the renewed interest in corporal punishment by "some members of the Christian right," the resurgence of electroshock treatment, and prospective parents' conviction that "giving birth without pain seems inauthentic."

Yet, are these the typical attitudes of most Americans? Do most of us really exercise regularly to the point of exhaustion (much less gloat about it)? Do we favor whacking children and zapping criminals with electroshocks? Wouldn't many of us consider a sadistic spread in Penthouse (or anywhere else) simply proof of that publication's dubious value?

Perhaps most outrageous is the assertion that women actually seek pain during childbirth and that without it they sense the birth was "inauthentic."

Schwartz tangles several issues here, namely, the purpose of childbirth classes and natural childbirth, the use of analgesics, and the feelings of women for whom childbirth becomes a "medical emergency."

The author would have us believe that nowadays "birth pains are not to be . . . muffled by the mother" and that "prospective parents take classes to appreciate the rhythms of a natural (and naturally painful) childbirth." Had he ever set foot in a childbirth education class, however, he would have discovered his egregious error.

Childbirth educators do not instruct people to "appreciate" pain. On the contrary, they teach women (and their husbands or coaches) how to alleviate or at least substantially lessen painful sensations during birth without automatically relying on pain-killing medication. While most classes run by hospitals, certified nurse-midwives, or reputable organizations emphasize that avoiding drugs is certainly desirable, parents-to-be also learn that in some instances the benefits of administering analgesics outweigh the advantages of avoiding them.

Schwartz then asserts that women "who because of medical emergency must be shot up with anesthetics feel cheated." This generalization masks important underlying distinctions. Nowadays a woman whose childbirth becomes a "medical emergency" may indeed feel cheated -- but not necessarily because she felt no pain. What, for example, was the nature of the emergency? A Caesarean section that the woman suspects was unjustified? What sort of drugs were given -- and had she consented in advance to their use? Countless factors will determine whether such women feel "cheated." To ascribe all such disappointment to an unsatisfied desire for pain is ludicrous.

Not all Americans seek pain, Schwartz maintains, but some treat the pain they already feel as an ordeal. Women with premenstrual syndrome (experienced by 20 to 95 percent of American women), backache sufferers, battered women, avant garde artists -- the author inexplicably presents these people and others as a dangerous horde of egocentrics who may become hellbent on convincing us their pain makes them better than us. Sorry, Schwartz, but these people are us. It is human nature to experience pain -- and since time immemorial, people have devised therapeutic measures to eradicate it. This is neither new nor dangerous.

With his muddled logic and inaccurate examples, Schwartz fails to prove that Americans thirst for pain or that their awareness of their own pain makes them either self-indulgent or likely to oppress others. Some rigorous thinking is in order before the author serves up this painful concoction again.