Tag Archives: Pain

Beyond the Limits of Empathy: A Pain Too Great To Comprehend

“I did not know how to reach him, how to catch up with him… The land of tears is so mysterious.” –Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

“You care so much you feel as though you will bleed to death with the pain of it.” J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Hello friend,

I have had a double whammy of friends in anguish lately. There are moments that their pains weigh so heavily on my heart that it seems I can hardly stand it.

The first came last week when I was sitting outside in the cold watching my son’s track practice with his good buddy’s mom, a dynamic, beautiful-hearted woman who has become my friend this year. As we sat shivering in our respective blankets, she shared with me that she was quite sure that her cancer–that I knew had been a recurring nightmare in her life over the course of several years–had just made a comeback. She had recently felt the physical changes that were its telltale signs and was waiting for her upcoming appointments and the scans that would make it official and thereby commence the fight for her life (again).

The news flattened me. The more it sank in, the more deflated I became. I tried to imagine the heartbreaking scenarios that must have been thrashing around nonstop in her mind as she waited: the empty helplessness of leaving her two young boys without a Mom, the guilt of leaving her husband alone to do the work they dreamed of doing only together, the milestones, and the million ordinary, extraordinary moments that come with loving your people wholeheartedly. I couldn’t bear these thoughts even in my imagination, so it baffled me how she could even be functioning with those cards in her hand.

After being enveloped the rest of the week in the cloud of her situation and prospects, ruminating every day in my journal on how she could handle it, I was hit with a second blast via a Facebook post. One of my oldest friends had lost his vivacious younger brother suddenly. At the age of 42, he was simply ripped from his joyous life and from his close-knit family.

My heart burst for them, especially my old friend. I just wanted to wrap my arms around him and absorb some of his anguish, to lighten his new life sentence in Grief. I felt like I had been kicked in the gut, imagining the wrenching pain and unanswered questions left by such a loss, amplified by its suddenness and his relative youth. How does one go on in the face of something that feels so wrong, so unfair? How blah does food taste? How pointless the television? In the ensuing days, I have often become aware of myself shaking my head, realizing that I was thinking about it again and going through that agonizing cycle of hurt and questioning. I think of my own brothers–who are not even as close to me as my friend was to his–and I shudder at the thought of losing either of them, ever, much less at an age so young. It is devastating.

Then I surface from my despair and realize that, as bad as it seems in my heart, these are not even technically my problems. I can even escape them with some denial or distraction. My friends are the ones who are truly carrying the burden. They are the ones with no fresh air when they wake up at night or sit alone in their car. No matter how heavy my weight of sadness is, no matter how much I feel for them, I see now that I can’t feel like them. I can’t reach that level. It is just not the same, no matter how empathetic I am.

My reaction to that realization, as my heart translates now, feels a lot like guilt. I feel bad–weak, like a poor friend–that I can’t fully feel their pain with them, like I am letting them down somehow by not being as deep in the trenches of struggle as they are. I guess it is because my idealistic self wants to believe if I could put myself exactly in their emotional shoes, that I could somehow take their pain away, at least some of it, by sharing the load. But I can’t.

I think that is one of my “middle age realizations,” something I didn’t register when I was younger: we don’t really know anyone else’s struggle. We can’t fully know their pain because we aren’t in their skin. And even if we have experienced “the same thing” (e.g. each having endured the death of a sibling), we had different relationships and different pasts and different natural abilities to cope with Life’s inevitable tragedies and hardships.

I used to be sure that I was a true empath, that my ability to feel other people’s pain and understand them completely was almost supernatural. I don’t believe that anymore. I know I feel horribly for so many people who have been wronged by Life in any number of ways and want badly to ease their burdens, but at this age I am finally coming to grips with the fact that that doesn’t count for having walked a mile–much less a lifetime–in their shoes. It isn’t much at all, actually.

It illuminates another of my later realizations: compassion doesn’t count for much unless you are willing to act on it. It is all well and good to feel horribly for a friend with cancer or a sibling going through divorce or a family in your community who just lost their home or a whole race of people who were enslaved or robbed of their land, but if you aren’t willing to reach out and do something for them–a kind word, an apology, a meal, reparations, a hug, your time, your attention, your labor, your teaching of others–then your compassion is just wasted potential. You have to do something.

Maybe I am just getting old and this is what “wisdom of the elders” looks like, but it sure hurts my heart to know that as badly as I feel for my loved ones, I can’t even scratch the surface when it comes to their pools of personal pain. That is a hard lesson. Sometimes learning is no fun. But what is the alternative?

How about you? How much do you feel the pain of others, and how does that play out in your life? Open up your journal and explore your experiences with hardships and tragedies? Start with your own. What are the most difficult, most painful experiences that you have gone through in your life? Whose deaths have you had to face? Which relationships have ended or been severely damaged? Have you faced a health crisis? Have you been abused? Have you lost jobs painfully or wrongfully? Have you had to move away from loved ones or had them move away from you? Have you been the victim of a damaging crime, such as a sexual assault? Have you experienced war? Natural disasters? Have you lost your home or been in financial ruin? What else has left you traumatized? How alone did you feel when facing these crises? Did it seem that there was much that your loved ones could do for you emotionally, no matter how much they cared? Did it feel as though the burden was yours alone to carry, or could the compassion of others lighten your load? How would you rate the empathy of the people in your life at the time of your hardships? Could they understand your pain? Did you try to help them to understand? Was it worth the effort? Now turn it around. What are the biggest tragedies and crises that your nearest and dearest have had to face? Go back through the list of the questions above? Which ones have they gone through? Which are happening now, or at least most recently? How have you reacted to their situations? How badly do you feel when bad things happen to other people, whether you know them or not? Do you consider yourself highly empathetic, moderately, or not very? Does that vary widely depending upon your relationships and similarities with the afflicted (e.g. I have people in my life who are deeply caring and compassionate within their families but cannot seem to summon the slightest bit of empathy when it comes to different ethnic groups or religions or social classes; it is very disturbing.)? Have you been good about expressing your compassion (i.e. is it clear to others that you feel them?)? Have you found that your empathy has helped people in their times of tragedy? Does it make them feel better that you feel bad for them? How do you show it? Words? Simple presence? Hugs? Meals? Donations? Errands or other conveniences? Prayers or positive vibes? Do you sense that there is a line in each case that, despite your best intentions and best efforts, you simply cannot get a full sense of the pain someone is feeling, that there is a level of darkness that your light can never reach? How does that make you feel? Helpless? Frustrated? Relieved? When do you feel most alone? In that moment, is there anything that anyone can do? At the end, does each of us have our own final say in our recovery from tragedy and hardship, a point when others have done all they can and we have to shoulder the load of our survival and our happiness? Even if you believe that to be the case, is there ever an excuse to bail out and become less compassionate to the struggles and burdens of others? Leave me a reply and let me know: How deeply do you feel the pain of other people?

Give your heart,

William

P.S. If today’s letter resonated with you, please share it as you see fit. Let’s awaken our hearts to the pains of other people and then do the work to ease those pains.

P.P.S. If this type of self-examination appeals to you or someone you care about, check out my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers.

An Unfriendly Reminder

DSC_0408“When health is absent, wisdom cannot reveal itself, art cannot manifest, strength cannot fight, wealth becomes useless, and intelligence cannot be applied.” –Herophilus

Hello friend,

A little over ten years ago, I came to understand suicide more clearly.

Sure, I had spent time thinking about it over the years, but mostly in theoretical terms. I would hear about people killing themselves and always wonder, “Why?” In the tenderness of my youth, I wanted to believe I was so empathetic that I really could understand the depths of despair. When my first love broke my teenage heart, I was a mess inside. I was pretty far gone, but not so far that I wasn’t aware of my thoughts. Among other things, I thought a lot about suicide. Not actually doing it—I never considered it as an option—but about the concept of suicide. Being depressed for that short time really triggered something in me, a deeper intellectualization of suicide. I thought about it regularly: about how people’s emotions can turn an otherwise-clear mind irrational, and about how belief—whether rational or not—that one’s life has no hope for improvement can make ending that life seem like an appealing option. Traps of the heart and mind. That, in a nutshell, is how suicide appeared to me until about the age of thirty. And then, it all changed.

I herniated a disc in my lower back. I won’t go into the complete nightmare sequence of events led by the HMO-directed thinking of doctors who were way out of their expertise, but suffice it to say that in the end, I was literally stuck in a sideways-bent position for days on end as they continued to multiply the doses of narcotics but failed to get me the right tests and specialists to provide any relief. I distinctly recall sitting—if you could call it that—alone in my basement one afternoon, sobbing and wailing because it hurt so badly. It was in that moment, and in the ensuing days of agony that led up—finally—to my surgery, that I arrived at a new understanding of suicide. It wasn’t only about mental and emotional pain and despair, as I had previously believed. No, the ending of one’s own life could be deemed a desirable outcome if enough physical pain was involved for a long enough time. Again, much like when I was suffering from a broken heart, I didn’t actually consider killing myself during the episode with my back, but I surely thought about the concept often. My mind just gravitated to the topic. I put myself in the position of people who are suffering from some types of terminal cancer or other chronic, severe, and debilitating pain, and believe me, I completely understood their desire to end their lives “prematurely”. In that much pain and with no end in sight, it became easy to understand the “This isn’t living” rationale. If I weren’t being careful with my words, I would describe the kind of pain I was in as “unbearable”. However, at least I knew that a solution would come eventually, and with it relief. I knew I could lay down my burden; others are not so lucky.

Even though I have some lingering nerve damage in my leg from the blundering of those doctors that did not get me the proper care in time—yes, I am a little bitter still if you couldn’t tell–my essential health was restored eventually. There is a scar on my spine that will stay with me, but otherwise my body moved on. After a year, I had pretty well put behind me my medical nightmare and the horrific pain I was in for those dark days. One lesson I kept with me was to always try to maintain strength in my core muscles and overall fitness. The other lesson that I was sure that I would hold onto forever was to be grateful for my health every day that I have it. The incident had made me keenly aware of how precious and fleeting good health is—much like life itself—and thus how aware and grateful I should be each day to be alive and relatively pain-free. I vowed to never forget. How could I?

Well, I did forget. I got complacent. I did the right things physically to try to avoid another disaster, but I got sloppy with the gratitude part. I stopped reminding myself what a magnificent gift it is to wake up and breathe easily in the morning, to be able to wrestle with my kids and give them shoulder rides, to run around and hit tennis balls, to survive a hot yoga class, and to simply walk the earth without the distraction of pain. Sure, I have had pretty regular injuries to remind myself what a hassle they are, but mostly I have been able to press on and continue an active life. And, I am sad to admit, a blindly ungrateful one, too.

It seems that the better my health has been, the less grateful for it I have been. For me at least, it is the biggest one I let slip through the cracks when it comes to prayers of gratitude. I feel like I am pretty self-aware when it comes to how lucky I am to have such wonderful people in my life. My parents and siblings are the best ever, and I wouldn’t trade any of them in. I can hardly imagine my luck in finding someone who actually chose to have me around for life, so, needless to say, I am grateful for my amazing wife. And of course, my kids are the greatest things that have ever happened to me. I feel like I know that every day, too. I am so aware of how they make my heart overflow, so I pretty much ooze gratitude when it comes to them. I know, too, how lucky I am to be allowed a schedule that matches my priorities, offering me tons of quality time with the family, as well as some stolen moments to pursue my passions, such as writing this letter to you. I am well aware of how spoiled I am in this regard, so I am deeply grateful.

I always tell people that one of the biggest benefits of keeping a daily journal is that it makes me intensely self-aware, and that the main benefit of this self-awareness is gratitude for my beautiful existence. As I said, I feel like this is very true in all of the other areas of my life. So, why do I do so poorly in acknowledging the blessings of good health? Being a sports lover, the analogy that comes to my mind is of the referee (or the ballkids in tennis). The goal of the referee—or the ballkid—is to NOT be noticed. If you notice them, it is probably because they are doing a bad job. Health seems to be, for me, like that. If I don’t notice my health, that means the job is being done well. If I do notice it—like this past week, when my spine has again gone awry and left me agonizing—something is wrong. I can see now—pain sometimes has a way of clarifying things—that this is not fair to my health. I am hereby vowing to do a better job of acknowledging—DAILY–the wonderful fortune it is to be in good health. I love Herophilus’s quote at the top of the page; it really is true that without health, our other gifts cannot shine through. I am so driven to maximize my potential, so I would be a fool not to honor the instrument through which all things flow. Like with so many people around us, a simple show of gratitude and respect can do wonders. It is time I started to set things right. I am only sorry that it required this week’s unfriendly reminder from my spine to help me see the light.

How about you? How is your relationship with your health? Open up your journal and start writing. Make a list of the aspects of your health that you appreciate. Can you make it through the day without pain? Do you require any medications or devices to function normally? Do you like a good fitness challenge? Do you sleep comfortably? Are you able to “act like a kid” sometimes, full of energy and freedom? Can you run? Could you still climb a sledding hill? Jump in the pool or lake for a swim? Run through the sprinkler? Ride a bike? Chase a kid around all day? Do you set goals for your health and fitness? Do you go to a gym or have a regular workout routine? How is your diet? If you could change your weight any amount in either direction, what would you choose? Do you know of people who are less healthy than you? Perhaps they have cancer, cardiovascular disease, an autoimmune disorder, arthritis, or obesity. In thinking about them, does it make you more grateful for the health that you have? Does it motivate you to take action to improve your health? How grateful are you about your status? Are you like me and take it for granted when it is going well, only to be reminded of your ingratitude when you are stricken down with something? Leave me a reply and let me know: Do you appreciate your health, or does it require an unfriendly reminder? 

Start your day with “Thank you”,

William