Of Pain and Happiness

Over the past 24 hours or so, my level of discomfort has ranged from “not f***ing around” to “breathtaking”.

Or, in H&H terms, “I see Jesus coming for me and I’m scared.”

I have had to deal with physical and mental pain a lot in my life, and I am definitely not very good at it.  I have spent most of the past day curled up in my bed trying to focus enough to do my homework (and now, trying to write this post) but the combination of pain and pain medicine has made this sort of haze descend over my consciousness.  It isn’t fun.

And the worst part about it is that my poor friends and family have had to put up with me.  My level of crankiness has gone through the roof lately.  When all of my strength is invested in keeping me from curling up in a ball on the floor, speaking in a cheerful voice isn’t on my list of priorities.  I snap at people and then immediately feel terrible about it.

I have been acutely ill a couple of times in my life.  When I was in elementary school I caught mono and lay in bed half-delirious for weeks.  In high school, I had bronchitis that lasted a month and carved hollows in my face and between the bones in my arms.  And when I had acute PTSD, which is thankfully getting milder and milder as the years go by, I would sleep for days.  (I refer you, also, to last fall, when my depression reached new and terrifying depths, depths that I have since climbed out of almost all the way.)

What I have never been is seriously ill – sick in the way that makes doctors talk to your parents about prognoses and quality of life.  Because I am so young, I personally know very few people who have really been that sick.  Most of them have been older relatives, but there have been people my age, too.  

And they’re all so strong.  How are they that strong?  How are they not wimpy weenies like I am, curled up dizzy and sick in bed?  How do they continually stay polite, selfless, and happy?  I sure would like to be happy.  I wish I were better at being sick: less demanding on my friends and family, able to successfully hide my pain.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while and I’ve come up with several hypotheses:

  • They don’t have any other choice.  When your only options are “be strong” or “die,” you better believe that most people will choose the “be strong” option, if only out of self preservation.
  • They have figured out that being negative and pessimistic is emotionally taxing.  If you’ve ever been sick with, say, a cold, and thought a little about all the ways in which a cold could kill you (not really very many ways, but you get my point) then you understand what I mean when I say “emotionally taxing”.
  • They don’t want to upset their friends and family.  Serious illness is a messy business and most people will want to spare the people they love as best they can.
  • The pain has actually made them stronger.  This is a kind of abstract concept that I do not fully understand, but I suspect that if someone is in a lot of pain, more than they think they can overcome, and then they do overcome it, it boosts their self-esteem.  “Wow, did do that?” they think.  “I must be stronger than I thought.”

There are a few human qualities that continue to astonish me, and the capacity to endure is one of them.  People have:

  • sailed 5,000 miles in a handmade raft (Thor Heyerdahl)
  • survived nine days in the rainforest (Juliane Koepcke)
  • climbed Mt. Everest, Kilimanjaro, Annapurna, etc … sometimes in shorts (Wim Hof)
  • traversed the Antarctic in years-long expeditions (Shackleton et al.)
  • and survived acts of unbelievable brutality (which I will not mention here because everyone knows what I am referring to already.)

Not to mention there are millions of people who get up, every single morning, in the face of tremendous personal difficulty, and just keep going.  It is incomprehensible and inspiring.  

Bernadette Soubirous, mystic and saint of the Catholic Church, was one of my favorite role models growing up.  I used to watch The Song of Bernadette and admire the way Bernadette ignored her illness and pain, significant though it was, in favor of continuing her work.  Now, though, I know that not only saints have this capacity.  I am blessed to know many people who have given me a model of how to overcome pain, whether physical, mental, or emotional, and I hope that I will continue to get better at managing and working through my own discomfort.