Behind every beautiful thing, there is some kind of pain.
I’m not feeling well today. I have a raging headache and I’m not sure why. Anyway, this situation got me to thinking about the nature of pain. There probably isn’t a single person on the planet who cannot relate to the concept. Every one of us has stubbed their toe, bitten our tongue, run into something, had something dropped on them, fallen down, etc, etc. But not everyone handles it the same way. The majority of us outwardly express when we are in physical pain. It doesn’t matter what language you speak, we still understand these gestures, usually in combination, as signs of pain: a grimace, a groan, a quick intake of breath, a scream, the grabbing of a body part, etc. Some people are able to hide their reaction and outwardly show nothing–surely a learned behavior. That doesn’t mean they don’t feel it though.
I’ve noticed that the ability to hide pain is much more common with emotional pain. Because a breaking heart has no physical component (at least not immediately). Sure a person might cry or look downcast but not always. Indeed there are some people, and I am one of them, that can carry around an enormous amount of emotional pain without too much outward show. Eventually though it becomes like glass shards or pieces of a bullet working its way across ones body until it pierces some vital organ or finally breaks through the skin. And doctors now know there is a long-term connection between emotional pain and one’s physical health.
Regardless of whether it’s emotional or physical pain, the longer one carries it, the more likely one is going to show outward symptoms. Ever wonder why the old man living next door is always grumpy? It might be the constant pain from his shattered knee that he got while in Korea. He won’t tell you about it but it will affect his mood. Studies have found that people with chronic pain actually show changes in their brains. So the actual neural pathways of the brain get modified and that affects mood, memory, and even personality. Yet I know people who are in chronic pain who aren’t grumpy all the time, who live their lives to the fullest and try never to let pain affect how they treat others. Many people, like that old man next door, never really talk about it at all. For others talking about it is a way of coping. It’s also a way to help others–to share what you’ve learned about pain and how to live with it.
I have had a life time of pain myself. I remember experiencing IBS symptoms as early as 3 years of age and Depression as early as 6. One would think I can tolerate a lot of pain as a result and I can recite many instances where I soldiered on. In college I broke my nose in the middle of an indoor soccer game. I finished the game and even scored a goal–all while seeing double. As a child I was practically feral–I ran around with bare feet and routinely cut myself on fences, broken glass, discarded soda can tabs (remember those?). I improperly slid into home so many times that I have permanent scars on my knees to show for it. I’ve smashed my fingers with a hammer and kept on working. While in Rome, playing soccer in tennis shoes against some seminary students, I accidentally kicked the metal pole on one of the goals (actually the pole was the goal). My big toe bled like crazy and I lost the nail that night. I was out in the courtyard playing soccer again the next day. I distinctly remember being in high school algebra one day and my IBS was acting up. I experienced a terrible sudden pain. My teacher stopped in mid-sentence and asked me if I was okay because I had just blanched so white it scared him (and I’m already very pale). I told him I was fine and the lesson proceeded. When I was 14 and playing goalie (soccer again, it will probably be the death of me) an opponent kicked the ball into my mouth at very close range….my teeth bled, actually thought they might have been knocked out, and it hurt very badly, but I kept on playing. I used to climb the roofs of our house and the shed out back. I’d jump off the roof (at least 12 or more feet high) and land feeling a lot of pain in my knees–never stopped me from climbing and jumping again and again. One time one of my sisters decided she wanted to watch a different TV station than I (this was before remotes) so we went back and forth changing the dial until she grew frustrated and began to get physical with me. No matter what she did to me I just kept getting back up, walking over to the TV and changing it back. The final straw was when I was on my hands in knees attempting to get up when she kicked me in the ribs and sent me flying across the living room and landed on the coffee table. I started to crawl toward the TV and she gave up knowing that she was going to have to knock me out or kill me to get me to stop. And that might get my Mother’s attention so she let me have the TV to myself.
See I’ve had a lot of physical pain in my life and I can handle that stuff. What I could never stand was emotional pain. I hated to feel strong negative emotions such as shame and mortification, loss, rage, terror, and grief. So I assiduously avoided situations in which there was a risk of experiencing any of those things. I didn’t (and really still don’t) like to be around others who exhibit those emotions. This must have been why I was such an easy child to raise. All my mother had to do was deeply shame me once on a particular issue and that lesson was tattooed in my brain forever more. I thought erroneously, as the young often do, that I could get through life not ever having to really expose myself. So I went through my 20’s maintaining friendships and romantic relationships without really caring for the other person (other than my family which most people can’t help but care for). Oh I went through the motions of loving other people and tried to seem as if I was connected. I remember working very hard to ensure that they would love me but never working at all to love them back. There’s a couple of problems with this (obviously, you exclaim at this point).
First, it’s hideously manipulative and selfish. I wasn’t being this way consciously and my intentions were good. I really did want to connect with other people, but something was wrong and I didn’t know what it was. I couldn’t see the pattern yet. But in the end, yes, it was morally wrong and I regret it. I don’t lose sleep over it any more but when I first realized what I had been doing, I felt very guilty for quite some time. Second, when I did finally feel something I didn’t always know what it was. It’s like a person who has been blind for so long that they’ve forgotten what colors look like and then they’re given their sight back. They can see the color red but they can’t point at it and say, “that’s red”–it could just as easily be green to them. Third, when I did feel something it was overwhelming and too intense–even the positive emotions. Fourth and worst of all, when I did feel positive emotions I was greedy and pitifully grateful for it. I was like some Dickensian waif starved for food who would do anything for the person that fed them–pick pockets to please my benefactor, sure! Jump off a bridge for my personal Fagin? Sure!
Obviously in the normal development of things this kind of stuff would have been experienced in childhood and as a teenager while still in what is supposed to be the protective and supportive cocoon of the family, when it’s a lot harder to do anything of too much consequence and a lot harder to get used badly by others. But remember I was feral….I say this jokingly but I do mean it in some ways to be literal. I was tough and resourceful–I knew how to take care of myself, but I was stunted emotionally. I thought I was numb to the world but in truth I was terrified of it. As a result the learning curve was so steep that I did the avoidance and then manipulative thing for far too long. Over time I figured out that I kept ending up in relationships with someone who was either also emotionally stunted or someone who took advantage of me. I think I’ve finally stopped that pattern. I’ve figured out how to love someone, most likely imperfectly, and how not be so scared or at least, how not to let my fear get in my way. Sometimes through the course of life events I even learned to love myself–like walking away from someone who I loved very much because he wasn’t good for me or my daughter. Other times, I have taken deliberate chances on love like having my kids. Very few things teach you more about love and loss than having and raising a child.
Yet, still, to this day, I think I would rather be beat up physically than to experience emotional pain. But I don’t let the fear stop me any more. After all, fear is just an emotion and pain is a part of living. And I’m so very grateful to be living.