“A prerequisite to empathy is simply paying attention to the person in pain.” -Daniel Goleman
Practicing mindfulness doesn’t lessen physical or emotional pain but it does help us choose better responses to it. Rather than complaining to no one in particular or channeling it into mindless reactions (e.g., being short-tempered), we try to turn and face the emotions that are triggered by the pain and find the best way to live with them.
The difficult part about chronic physical pain is that it is always there and, oftentimes, won’t let us ignore it. Chronic pain is the two-year old at the grocery store pulling items off every shelf and begging mom to buy them. It’s the power screwdriver whose reverse setting is broken and can only tighten. It’s the unrelenting desert sun that doesn’t have the capacity to allow even the smallest shade-providing cloud.
But sometimes, no matter how skilled we think we might be in coping with the emotions that present themselves along the way, we need time.
And distance. And empathy. And even distractions to just get past this particular moment in time so we can somehow be present for the next one without being pulled into a pity-producing abyss.
That doesn’t mean we’re “suffering with pain.” Suffering comes from turning away from the emotions triggered by ongoing pain and hoping they’ll either go away or a magic fix will appear from around the corner. However, it does mean that we need to gain some separation from the world until we can get through the more challenging moments and climb back onboard the mothership.
The hardest part can be the desire of well-meaning friends and family who want to “do something” to help.
“I know a great orthopedist. He fixed my mama’s gout. Let me give you his number.”
“Jamaican dogwood tincture. It’s on all dem doctor shows on da TV, mon.
“Tumeric paste. I know it sounds crazy but my cousin in Wisconsin put it under his arms when he went to bed and the next morning he was fine.”
Or, maybe, they don’t necessarily know what that entails but the specifics don’t matter. If they are being genuinely empathetic, they are sensing some of what we’re feeling and want us to feel relief for our sake.
But let’s be honest. Most folks become uncomfortable and feel helpless in the presence of someone else who’s in pain.
That’s because we don’t like unresolved issues or problems with no discernible answer and we certainly expect modern medicine to be able to fix everything.
That makes the “solving” of the pain problem about them as much, if not more, than it is about us. And that’s the difference between sympathy and empathy. It’s not an act of benevolence when our relief solves a problem for them.
It can be so challenging not to have a standard reply for those times. Sometimes, we want a friend to say,
“it must be so frustrating to have to face this without the comfort of knowing that there’s a cure around the corner. How can I best support you?”
Sometimes, we just want to be alone because we feel like crying or yelling into a pillow or simply breathing purposely until things subside enough to move forward. Sometimes, we need to lay still and watch Seinfeld reruns to take our minds somewhere else. Sometimes, we need a shot of steroids or even tequila!
But there’s no template for coping with chronic pain because it differs for each person and even differs for each individual, depending on circumstances.
Surround yourself with those who, as much as possible, understand all this. Or at least be willing to explain it so they won’t be in the dark about how we’re feeling.
Toughing it out in silence only serves to confuse those who genuinely want to be helpful,
even if it’s just being available to listen non-judgmentally when we need to vent or to pour that shot and distract us with a funny story.
Most importantly, please try not to be frustrated if we can’t explain what we want. Just love us, unconditionally, hold our hand and bring us bacon.