There is a book that I read in college called Regarding the Pain of Others. Written by American philosopher Susan Sontag, it explored the repercussions of viewing images of other people in pain, especially in the surreal real-but-not world of photographs. Sontag says that there can be no we when dealing with another’s pain, as one cannot experience another’s’ experience.
A question that I often ask myself, especially in seasons in which I find myself sick more often than not sick, is how to deal not with seeing others in pain (there is of course the old adage “misery loves company), but how to deal with seeing health in others.
For someone with chronic pain seeing another individual living carefree and in good health with their four humors sloshing about in perfect harmony can easily become in itself a form of pain. That pain can even more easily slide into bitterness, coldness and hatred, which leads only to more pain as the only person that coldness, hated, and bitterness is guaranteed to harm is the person doing it, and those harms are doubled because the chronic pain that started the shenanigan is still there.
Or, and I have found this to be most common, you sink into a deep sadness as the pipes drone the tune of Spancil Hill in the back of your mind and you watch your dreams and happy songs sail away.
But how can one with chronic pain avoid all these bad things?
Apart from becoming a hermit, you will still have to encounter people in life. And since you are reading this online, you also get to encounter people’s peppy facades that they put up online.
So what is there to do, since the only person who stands to get hurt by your reaction is yourself?
One thing to do is to reverse roles. Put yourself in their shoes. Everyone has pains and problems in their life. Everyone. Those pains and problems will be different from person to person, but they are still in pain. I would argue that almost everything done by people is done out of pain or fear of pain. If not, why would anyone do anything? You ask out a girl because the pain of being without her is too great to bear. You get a job because of the pain of being able to afford food. You train your puppy not to bite because the pain of the bites are too much.
Believe that last bit or not, my point is that everyone on earth has an acute sense of fear and pain. If we are all suffering, ought we to give some slack to those around us? That’s what I advocate at least. Not doing so just makes everything worse, and by everything I mean it makes you worse and the other people just keep on living.
I have never met a happy person who sits in the dark hating the world. And I would know; for many years I was that person. Of course I did not put my hand on a Bible and say “I Quaid, hold myself in contempt of the world”, but I still didn’t like it one bit.
The lights are too bright.
The music is too loud.
Yes I can hear you through the earplugs.
No I will not take off my hat for your wedding. *
It definitely takes work when your own body is fundamentally unequipped to exist in the artificial world in which we live, and the people in that world seem to be working to force you out. It is very easy to retreat into yourself, cut yourself off, and contact filthy outsiders only when you need them to sell you food.
But the problem with that is that it assumes that others are fundamentally against you. This is incorrect, as more often than not, they don’t care about you.
And beyond that, how could they know that you are suffering? You don’t even know their name, they don’t know yours. How could they know what you are going through? And, what if they too are going through pain, or even more chillingly, the very same pain as you? Unless you talk to each other, you would never know. They will be like the soldiers who crucified Christ—they know not what they do. Or you both will know not what you do, and hurt each other. And in that case, who is in the wrong?
And sometimes, some people who do know about your pains will continue to hurt you, accidentally or otherwise. For those times, there is the classic solution. Take a sock, fill it with a generous handful of pebbles, and invite them down to the lake for a midnight stroll just the two of you. Then talk about your problems with them while skipping the stones across the calm nighttime water.
Sometimes so many problems can be solved by talking.
Finally, there is the grease that helps all this run smoother, and that is forgiveness. Sometimes you will just have to forgive people, whether they apologize or not, whether they know what they do or not. Grudge-holding is of course a time honored tradition, but it is certainly not the best way to live a healthy life. Again, it will only hurt you. Or if its a special, rare, and magical kind of grudge that is mutual, it will hurt you and the other person. It won’t be good, is what I am saying.
And yes, I recognize that this is painting a picture of myself as a growling hater of the world, and I do not deny it. A dream of mine that recurs whenever the sound guy at church equates loudness with God’s presence is to acquire an island between Ireland and Scotland (please don’t tell the Republic of Ireland or the United Kingdom, thank you kindly) build a castle there, and vanish. But I hope that by writing this I have proven that I have vowed to repent.
So then, what of the original statement of Sontag’s, that there can be no we when dealing with pain in others? I agree with it, but with this caveat: since we do not know each others’ pain, we ought to recognize that we all are in different kinds of pain, and cut each other slack because of that.
*If I do agree to take off my hat for your wedding, consider yourself loved.