A couple of weeks ago, I took both my kids to the doctor’s office. When it came time for the flu shots, the tech asked me to pick which child should go first. I picked my 3-year-old son. He reacted with an “ouch” and then was on to the next thing.
My 7-year-old daughter went next and probably because her brother didn’t cry out, she didn’t scream or cry when she got the shot but spent the next 20 minutes telling us how much it hurt. Then she saw her grandmother and started in on the spiel all over again.
My kids have completely unique reactions to pain. That’s even with taking into account gender and birth order differences that may exist despite my best efforts to treat them the same. It makes me think – we all express our pain differently.
This brings to mind some observations I read from animal behaviorist Temple Grandin about how animals mask their pain. In her book, Animals in Translation she talks about how sheep are the ultimate stoics – she’s witnessed a sheep that’s undergone an excruciating bone procedure return to the herd and blend totally in. Because of course for prey, that’s the point to make sure you aren’t distinguishable to predators based on weakness.
And another example she told was the story of a bull being castrated, who when left alone was writhing on the ground in utter agony. And yet when a researcher walked up, he jumped up and pretended nothing was wrong.
We all mask our pain, physical and psychological, whether its nature or nurture. As Plato said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” It just might not be observable.
And perhaps pain is most dangerous when we mask it so much that we forget to listen to it. I have a spot behind my left shoulder blade that is incredibly knotted and tense from too much time spent in front a computer. I’ve had it for so long that for the most part I just tune it out which seems like an effective strategy until it hurts so badly that I have to get a massage. At which point my massage therapist, who has been my massage therapist for 25 years and is ultra-patient, asks “Are you ever stretching?” Duh – if I tended to it, perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad!
And I won’t even get started on my examples of psychological discomfort because we’d be here all day. I’m just saying, pain is instructive. It tells us what not to do and it also shows us where we need to heal. When we listen to our pain, we can create a relationship with it and maybe even start a dialogue – something different than just ignoring it.
“Our bodies often give us messages we fail to pay attention to. Ironically, we are all so aware of pain, can hardly ignore it, but we rarely hear what it has to say. It is true that we may need to withstand great pain, great heartache, great disappointment and loss in order to unfold into the rest of our lives. But our pain may also be showing us exactly where we need to change.”The Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo
That day in the doctor’s office, I picked the order of the shots for my kids knowing that my son would have the smaller reaction. I didn’t want him to learn from his sister all the demonstrativeness. More than that, I didn’t want to endure the pain of having two kids crying.
But I think now I was wrong – I would much rather bear witness to their short-term outburst than to long-term suppressed agony. It’s one of the hardest things that I have to do to lead by example, to unmask my own pain and make it both visible and instructive. But I’m hoping that by working on it, it helps both of my kids know that exhibiting pain will gain one comfort, at least from your mom.
How do you handle pain in yourself? What about with others?
For more posts like this – a little story-telling mixed with philosophy, please visit my personal blog at https://wynneleon.wordpress.com or follow me on Instagram @wynneleon
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(featured photo from Pexels)