People who cope with chronic pain–the kind of pain that comes to live with you forever–are very good at hiding it. I know. I do it all the time with my rheumatoid disease (arthritis) pain. My family rarely knows I hurt at all, let alone how much.
Given that I dislike (read: hate) being seen and judged as a “sickie” by others, I’d like to think that I don’t do it to others myself. Pain is insidious. Mine frequently niggles and squintches its nasty way into every corner of my life. How can I look askance at someone else who’s suffering it? If a friend or family member tells me they’re hurting, I ought to be–by far–the most understanding person they confess their misery to.
Because I understand how embarrassing pain can be. I know how whiney I feel if I acknowledge my pain to others. Most of the time people are kind and concerned, yes, but I’ve also felt that cold desolation when my friends, colleagues, or family members act underwhelmed, or even aggravated by my complaint. Worst is if they react by telling me that if I’d just walk every day or take this or that supplement, I’d feel all better. Did I ever try that pomegranate-chondroitin-gin-and-raisin mix they suggested last time?
Goodness, that hurts. And to make it worse, I feel guilty because it hurts me! Obviously they’re sympathetic, right? They don’t like to see me in pain! They’re just trying to help me, to suggest possible solutions. How can I be so small-minded and petty as to be insulted and angry at them for their kindness?
Do not pass GO, Wren. Do not collect $200.
I know how firsthand how much that kind of response can hurt, and I know how it plops a heavy-as-lead dollop of emotional pain right on top of the physical pain I’m already enduring.
But once in a great while, I have to admit I do the very same thing. I underestimate or even minimize the pain others tell me they’re feeling, or I assume I know just how to fix it. Sometimes I even feel a little disgusted with them because jeezly crow, if they’d just do this or that, they’d be bound to feel better! I know they won’t take my advice, though, so maybe they deserve the pain they’re suffering. Maybe they just want my sympathy and attention.
Take when someone tells me that they have arthritis, too, after I tell them I have rheumatoid disease. I immediately assume the pain they’re experiencing in their knee, or their thumb, or their hip couldn’t be even close to the kind of pain I suffer in joints all over my body. First, I’m a bit miffed that they’d even think their pain counted, compared to mine. And then I segue right into the very same thing I hate when others do it to me.
My eyes dull as I distance myself from their pain. I paste on a compassionate smile and mouth words of sympathy. I attempt to change the subject. If they continue to complain, then I start rattling off remedies. If they tell me they’ve tried them all to no avail, or give me reasons those remedies won’t work for them, I get disgusted and lose interest. I’d never say it out loud, but my body language makes it clear.
I heartily, deeply dislike this about myself when it happens. It’s as if my empathy antennae shrink, or something, and my patience stick snaps. And when it does, I have to step back and give myself a sharp mental shake. I have to remind myself (in my best, most serious adult inner voice) that I can’t feel someone else’s pain. Therefore, I’m not in a position to judge it, or them. I mustn’t try to compare how they’re feeling to how I’m feeling. We’re as alike as apples and tomatoes. We’re both fruit, but that’s where the comparison ends.
I don’t think I’m alone in this failing. We’re all only human, and sometimes we just don’t have it in us to render empathy on demand. Faced with someone who complains frequently, or who is sick all the time, we can lose our ability to be compassionate. People like nurses and doctors, who deal with ill–and not so ill but vocal–people every day can have real trouble with it. They chose the medical field because they wanted to help sick people, but once in it, find that they don’t have enough empathy to go around. And even those of us who must cope with chronic pain and illness frequently can find ourselves being critical of others who might need our compassion.
And that’s why when I tell someone I hurt, and they don’t react with sufficient empathy and compassion, I do my best to forgive them. They haven’t walking in my shoes–but I haven’t walked in theirs either. Perhaps it’s best that we all try not to judge each other at all.