The Tenderness of Pain

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This is why pain exists. It helps us care for ourselves.

I was surprised and not surprised when my thumb started hurting. After all, arthritis, not the Force, runs strong in my family. As they aged, both my grandmother and my mother, once avid seamstresses, watched their joints gnarl like old tree roots; the pain put a stop to cutting, pinning, and basting.

At first my aches were just a foreshadowing, a tinge. I bought some curcumin and crossed my fingers. 

And then, this winter, my thumb joint got worse quite quickly.

When I’m stressed, there’s nothing I like better than picking up an X-acto knife or crochet hook to steady my nerves. All of a sudden, the tenderness in my thumb made me wonder if I, like my mother and grandmother before me, would have to surrender the joys of using my hands someday. 

Dipping my toe into the pool of chronic pain conditions, I have learned a little bit about pain. What strikes me most, as a newbie, is how pain focuses your attention. Pain forces you to keep vigil with its ups and downs, whether you want to or not.

Each morning, one of the very first thoughts I wonder is how my thumb is doing. Its stiffness is a kind of barometer. For someone who tends towards anxiety, it’s a physical manifestation of my worry, not to mention a physical reminder of how little I control my future. 

I feel such relief when my thumb is easy to move—but that only highlights how worried I was the previous day. And how much it improves is impossible to really express or remember: the pain is new and impossible to quantify every morning. 

It is the companionship of pain—the presence of it—that startles me. It is like developing an extra set of nostrils. It might be subtle in my case, but even so, I am aware of it all the time.

This is why pain exists. It helps us to care for ourselves. 

During this pandemic, I can’t help but wish that we could all feel one another’s pain in exactly that way.

What would change if we could actually experience the aching of those struggling around us? If we had a palpable and relentless reminder of how our neighbors are hungry, or lonely, or depressed? What if that awareness felt like an inexorable pull to change how we act so the pain improved as much as possible?

We can’t nor are we meant to feel the entire pain of the world. General empathy can paralyze us (it certainly does me), trap us into savior complexes, or numb us to the possibility of baby steps forwards.

However drawing close to other people in particular—melding our synapses to each other in relationship so our souls cry out when our neighbor suffers—is so, so essential.

Knowing our neighbors and witnessing each other’s pain is complicated. It can feel scary and bewildering. It is uncomfortable to know how little I can do to make life easier for people who have survived a lot already. However we are all part of the same body. The pain that one of us feels matters to the others. But the only way that happens is by us actually knowing one another in particular.

The truth is that it is good, healthy, and urgent for us to notice suffering and do what we can to care for it. That is the whole purpose of pain in the first place.

 

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