I love this Peanuts comic from 1958. Lucy looks really confused that Linus said ‘ouch’ when she stepped on his blanket. But I get Linus here. I always have. Because I actually feel other people’s pain, and I always have.
Sometimes this is mildly amusing…for me and other people. For instance…if you stub your toe or bump your funny bone around me, I really will say ouch. For you. And I’m not feeling the same kind of jarring physical pain you are, but…for real…I am feeling SOME. My toe or elbow hurts when YOU hurt yours around me. I feel your pain. People laugh a little at that. It is kinda funny. But I mostly think it’s a nervous laughter. Like…’she’s weird, but I can’t call her weird, because that’s rude, so I’ll just laugh instead.’ I can feel that too. I can feel intention behind action and words fairly often. Of course, sometimes I’m wrong there, but I’m often right. It’s not because I’m psychic (although several people have jokingly (and nervously) asked me if I was before). It’s because I can feel other people’s feelings…energy…whatever you want to call it.
I know that sounds pretty ‘new-age-y.’ I’ve never really devoted myself to any specific spiritual belief system, so maybe it’s kind of odd that I’m declaring all this stuff about myself, but I do believe in science and I know what gathered evidence over time and patterns look like. I’ve always had really finely tuned empathy and intuition. I’ve been wrong before trusting people I shouldn’t have, but in 40 years, I’ve never once been wrong about someone who makes my intuition jangle with warning signs. They always did have sinister motives, with me, or with someone else I cared about, or with humanity in general.
I feel everyone’s pain. Their anxiety. Their anger. Their grief. Their sorrow. Their frustration. Their helplessness and hopelessness. Their failure.
I mean I also feel other people’s joy and love and celebration and comedy and relief and success, which is one major reason why I write about and put determined mental focus on these things so often, but unfortunately, there’s a lot more pain to feel out there than there is joy, collectively. Joys tend to be small. Pain tends to be big. And there are a lot of people in pain. And just like Linus in that comic, although they are not a physical part of me, when they hurt, I say ‘ouch!’
This can get extremely overwhelming. So sometimes I need to detach.
There’s this old, repetitive Dinosaur Jr. song called Feel the Pain…
“I feel the pain of everyone…then I feel nothing…”
That sounds callous, and maybe the song writers meant it to be callous, but I doubt it. I think they meant that when you get overloaded with pain, you get numb to it. You build up a tolerance…you get used to it…it becomes your new normal. I’ve experienced something like that with my own pain, physical and emotional. I’ve had issues with my lower legs since childhood and I never really sought help for it until I was in my late 30s, because I just accepted that as my normal: my legs always hurt. But it bothered J to watch me limping, and his ‘pain’ watching me was new. Until I met J, I didn’t really know what it felt like to NOT have a constant, low level amount of panic coursing through my body. Because my ‘normal’ was always feeling anxious, but that’s NOT normal. Once you’ve felt a certain kind and level of pain for so long, you don’t even consider it pain until someone else comes along who can see or feel your pain and says, ‘WHOA! That’s gotta hurt! Does that just hurt terribly all the time?!’ and you recognize it again. Or at least that’s how it worked for me. I needed to feel J’s concern for me to recognize my own pain.
But mostly when I hear those song lyrics, I think about how sometimes I’m feeling so much pain, particularly from other people, that I need to remove myself from it in order to deal with and process it. I don’t want to get used to it when it comes to feeling other people’s pain, because I think that’s kind of like my superpower. It makes me a better writer and more importantly, it makes me a better person. Many people have a natural mechanism to detach from other people’s pain and it seems like some of them are the opposite of me. They start out numb to other people’s pain and stay that way, for the most part. They can only feel their own unless they work at it, and few of them make rare efforts to work at it. They only care about pain when it’s happening to them personally. Or maybe to some first degree separation people they love, like their children or parents or spouse or best friend. But I don’t have to work at it. My empathy door is wide open. I can acutely feel the pain of people on the news…people in history books…people who live far away from me…people I’ve never met…people I don’t know, *fictional people*, people who are not like me or attached to me in any way other than ‘they are also human.’ And I can’t push the door closed. I don’t have that natural defense mechanism to close off to everyone except my country, my community, my family, myself. So I have to physically get away and escape from the weight of other people’s pain. That’s what the motorhome trip was for me. It was a temporary detachment to stem permanent detachment. Because I don’t want to become numb to other people’s pain. It’s important that I still feel it and that people like me still feel it and that hopefully, more and more people begin to and keep feeling it.
I’m an optimist and generally positive, hopeful person. And I’ve learned that I’m an exceptionally empathetic person. So of course, I don’t want people to feel pain. I don’t like feeling pain, mine or anyone else’s. But I have to feel it. I need to feel it. And I wish everyone else could feel everyone’s pain. I try, in the most painless way I can, through my writing, to help other people see the pain their fellow humans feel. That’s a goal I have in the stories I write. It really is. The book that I’m working on (and will hopefully finish editing this week…in the next day or two) is probably my most pronounced example of this. It’s been a difficult work in progress for this reason. I’m feeling a lot of other people’s pain writing it.
To quote another set of song lyrics from The Fray’s All At Once:
“We’d never know what’s wrong without the pain.
Sometimes the hardest thing and the right thing are the same.”