Pain in its First Moment (Reprint from 2016)

I first wrote and posted this in November of 2016, but it is how I feel about the news from this week and the thoughts are important to reaffirm. Original post here.

Last winter I fell because of a patch of ice on my front walk. It was dark and cold. I didn’t see the ice before my foot landed on it. The result was giant bruises all over, and a couple of micro fractures in my hand and wrist. All of that is now a memory, healed up. But today I am thinking about the moment after the fall. I don’t remember the fall itself. I do remember a moment of disorientation “why am I here on the ground?” Then the pain hit. I was incoherent with it for at least a minute. All I could do was make a loud, distressed noise. It was pure instinct, crying out. My brain knew that, in my pain, the best way to summon help was to make noise. That first wave of pain passed in a minute or two. I was able to control the noises more. Then I was able to assess the damage, figure out how to stand up, get myself into the house, and begin to treat my injuries.

I wonder if there is a name for that moment when the pain hits. Doctors probably know it. Even if there isn’t a specific name, I know that emergency personnel are trained to handle it. People in that first blast of pain are not rational. They can’t be. The pain short circuits careful thought. What is left are survival strategies: howling into the darkness and lashing out at anything that might cause more harm.

I have been present when someone gets hurt. I’ve seen that moment of irrationality from the outside as well as felt it from the inside. I’ve seen someone pound the wall because they stubbed their toe, only to discover later that the damage to the hand is worse than the toe. I’ve heard people say hurtful things in the first flush of pain, things they would not ordinarily say. I’ve learned that it falls to those who aren’t hurt to help those that are. Part of helping is having compassion for that moment of yelling an flailing. No it doesn’t make sense. Often it isn’t productive. It can lead to further injury both to that person and others. Sometimes the flailing hits the helper so hard that the helper then has to manage their own pain for a time. In that first painful moment rationality and planning may not be possible.

All people experience pain in their own way and on their own schedule. One person may proceed to rationality in seconds while another requires minutes, hours, or even days. The severity of the injury also affects the recovery. In this too, everyone is different, a blow which one person shrugs off, can destroy another. I fell and had bruises. An older friend’s fall left her with three broken ribs and fractured arm. I was functional, if hurting, the next day. She was not back to normal for weeks.

Emotional pain is as real as physical pain. It can trigger the same neurochemicals and the same physiological reactions. An emotional blow can trigger the same irrational reaction as a physical one.

I am seeing a lot of irrational reactions to recent events. I’m seeing lots of lashing out. I hope that those who are not hurting can be kind to those who are. Give them space while the pain overwhelms them. Understand that they have to yell and lash out, they can’t not. Recognize that they may be overwhelmed for a lot longer than you think is reasonable. Depending upon the extent of their injury, they may be permanently different, even when that first irrational pain has passed. Pain changes people, changes perspectives. Have compassion for that too.

We have wounded. There is healing to do. There will be disagreements about how that healing should be accomplished. Those disagreements will cause new pain, new irrationality, new lashing out. So we must come back to compassion. Over and over again. Every time there is anger, fear, damage, we must return to compassion, empathy, kindness. It will be hard.

As we move out of that first pain, the strategies adapt. Then we must learn to live with the cognitive dissonance of having compassion for those who rail, howl, and fight against us, while not relinquishing our resolve to change the world for better. We must learn to hold tight to both resolution and to compassion for those who react in pain and fear to the changes we seek. This sort of compassion is exhausting, but it is necessary. Many people who seem like opponents could be allies with an application of compassion. There are true opponents out there, people who calmly and rationally choose things which hurt us. We’ll have more energy to oppose them if we can tell them apart from people who are reacting out of fear or pain.

I wish there were easy answers. I wish that there were one set of words that could provide healing to everyone. There isn’t. My words here will be healing to some and will make others angry. Both the person healed and the person angry have every right to feel as they do. Emotions are what they are. They should all be allowed. It is actions which must be controlled and managed. I do not control the feelings which show up, I have a responsibility to carefully choose my actions. Today I’m choosing to extend compassion toward people who are in the midst of pain and fear.