Sorry Your Head Hurts, Do You Want Something to Eat?

I am becoming water; I let everything rinse its grief in me and reflect as much light as I can.” – Mark Nepo

Last night we were having dinner on my brother’s World War II era tugboat. He has lovingly renovated it over more than 20 years so that it’s very comfortable for him and my sister-in-law to live on, but it still has a lot of steel edges to bump into. Which is what happened – my 2-year-old son was looking out a port hole, stood up quickly and bonked his head. My sister-in-law was standing there with me, saw him do it and as I picked him up, showered him with sympathy.

But 30 seconds later (maybe longer but not much), my sister-in-law said to my son, “What’s the matter, Buddy? Are you hungry?”

It struck me as a common thing we do as humans. It’s hard to witness someone else’s pain. So we express sympathy and then we are ready to move on. Three things strike me about this.

First, we often move to trying to solve the problem. I find this impulse, especially as a parent, to be so alluring.

Second, if things last longer than we expect, we try to conflate the pain with something else as my sister-in-law did. Is it not surprising that we grow up confused about what our feelings are if the grown-ups around us think that what is wrong is that we are hungry when really our head hurts?

Third, we compound the original pain with our discomfort at sitting with someone in pain. So that they often are moved to pretend the pain has stopped so that they don’t have to contend with both their own pain and the pain of the people who are witnessing it.

It’s hard but sometimes the best thing to do when someone is in pain, is just sit with them. As a mom, I want to reach for the ice pack, the bandage or the song but I’m working on just letting the tears fall onto my arms as I hold them. We have to clean our wounds before we bandage them and, in a way, letting the injured party cry for as long as necessary is the best first step.

Pain and Suffering

The greatest miracle is to be alive. We can put an end to our suffering just by realizing that our suffering is not worth suffering for!” – Thich Nhat Hanh

This weekend my son wanted to be like his sister and asked me “Can I have a pony?” Which is his shorthand for a ponytail, but before I’d even touched his hair to make a teeny-tiny ponytail, he said, “I’m going to say ‘Ow’”!

That little snippet of interaction so clearly illustrated the idea of pain versus suffering. I was fascinated by this idea when I first read about it in Temple Grandin’s book Animals in Translation. In the book, she discusses her work as an animal scientist from her unique perspective as an autistic person. Her fascinating work brings together so many different perspectives.

Dr. Grandin talks about all the tests and observations they’ve done to study whether animals experience pain. Because animals, especially prey animals, mask pain so that they don’t stand out in the flock, in the case of sheep, it’s sometimes hard to observe whether they are in pain.

But then she moves on to talk about suffering. Looking at humans who have chronic pain, she cites studies that show that chronic pain patients have a great deal of pre-frontal lobe activity which suggests something other than pain which is a lower-down brain function. In cases where a patient with intense pain had a leucotomy, which disconnected the frontal lobes and the rest of the brain, the patient still had pain but didn’t care about it.

Pain and suffering are two different things. Whereas I can address pain with a bandaid, ice or other treatment, taking on suffering for me is a spiritual practice. It is best treated by bringing light and breath to it and then having faith that it will not only move on through but also usually inform some enlightenment. As the great Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says in the quote for this post, “The greatest miracle is to be alive. We can put an end to our suffering just by realizing that our suffering is not worth suffering for!

The most prominent of this for me was my divorce a dozen years ago. After my marriage fell apart, it was so easy to stay stuck in the storyline of my husband’s infidelities that I mucked around for a couple of years without owning my part of the story and acknowledging that I wanted out. Until I found meditation and faith as a tool to empty those pockets of stale dead air, I suffered from lack of perspective and inability to listen to the larger chorus of the Universe inviting me out of the pain and onward.

When I started to make the pony for my son, he said, “Ow” and decided he didn’t really want it. I guess he know it wasn’t worth suffering for.  

(featured photo from Pexels)

Receiving Pain

Only love, with no thought of return, can soften the point of suffering.” – Mark Nepo

When I trimmed my 2-year-old son’s hair recently, he’s started saying “Ow” with each snip. I checked to make sure I wasn’t pulling his hair or in any way touching his head with the tip of the scissors and continued. And he kept saying, “Ow.” It was possible he was the first person I’ve ever heard of to have feeling in his hair but his body language and smile told me it was more likely he was saying something that got a reaction.

But it brought to mind for me all the different ways I’ve received other people’s pain. I’ve dismissed it as not as bad as they are reporting. I’ve wondered when they will get over it. I have compared it (both inwardly and outwardly) as not as bad as something I’ve experienced. And I can report that none of these methods are helpful. The only way that I’ve found to bear witness to pain and to help alleviate suffering is to believe that every word they say is true and to listen as they process their story.

This makes me think of a winter climb I once did on Mt. Whitney with a good friend about 3 months after her boyfriend died of cancer. He’d been cremated and she was climbing with him in a little urn attached to her pack. She kept on mentioning Rick to the other people in the group we were climbing with, none of whom knew us from before the trip. And because she was talking about Rick as if he was with us (and I suppose he was if you counted the urn), they would get a pretty confused look on their faces and eventually take me aside to ask me who Rick was. But it was a group of really nice people who let her talk and talk and talk about him. We were slogging in thigh deep snow up the side of the mountain and had days to listen.  It was like an extreme walking meditation.

After a while, I thought we’d heard enough about Rick. I fortunately never said anything. Because it wasn’t until my dad died that I understood that the telling of the story of his sudden death in a bike accident and talking about what an amazing person he was were both such healing ways to help process the surprise of finding him gone.

So I’ve adopted some of my dad’s wisdom. As a retired pastor, he often was asked by friends, mentees and former parishioners to go to coffee for advice or to air the pain of living. And if you asked him how it went, he’d smile kindly and say, “Mostly I listened.”

My kids give me lots of opportunities to practice to listen to their pains and I do my best to calmly bear witness, not lecture about safety (at that moment at least) and just slather them with love. As I cut my son’s hair and he giggled and said “ow,” I started narrating that he was the bravest person on earth to get his hair cut. In that way, we made it through together!

Friends for All Seasons

A friend accepts us as we are yet helps us be what we should.” – unknow

I hosted a birthday brunch for my friend this past weekend. It was all great – my kids worked super hard to color the wrapping paper for gifts, set the table and make signs, I cooked and cleaned for a day in order to have friends over to our house which doesn’t happen much in this COVID era. It was all great — except my friend didn’t show up.

She sent her husband to come alone because she was throwing up from a bad oyster that she’d eaten the night before at a wedding for someone she barely knows but felt like she had to go. She didn’t call or text because I’m guessing she thought it was sufficient that he would let us know. Which he did and the disappointment meant I spent the first five minutes of the party holding my daughter as she cried.

So, I’m upset with my friend. Obviously not for being sick but because this is about the 20th example (and most dramatic) of how she hasn’t shown up for us literally and figuratively since she took a new job 6 months ago. At first I was all grace and understanding but by now my grace pool has been diminished to the point that I’m out of empathy at the time when she really was sick. I’m tired of watching her seeming to try to be best friends with all of her new co-workers and in so doing, impacting her existing relationships and her ability to care for herself.

I spent the whole rest of the weekend brooding about this. I didn’t want to gossip so I kept it to myself and it simmered under the surface. Until I was finally ready to deal with it yesterday. As irked as I was, I couldn’t sit and meditate about this so I tried a walking meditation.

When I’d bled enough energy off so that I could get some space from the hurt of it, I realized this isn’t about me. My friend appears to be undergoing a transformation in her life and from my experience transformations are often messy, painful and not well communicated. From my experience, it’s like being in a washing machine just trying to find out which way is up while hopefully something gets clean.

I suppose we can all give up on each other as we transform and I’m sure we give each other plenty of excuses to bail. But that’s when we need each other most, even if just hold space for each other and occasionally shout “this way is up.” Perhaps my friend and I will end up on the other side of this with not enough common ground to be close and that will be okay. But I know that for my friends that have stood with me through the messy transformations, we have a deeper relationship as we’ve been friends through all seasons.

All of this makes me wonder – maybe the one small step in making the world a more peaceful place is holding space for others as they change?

Kiss the Pain Goodbye

Have a heart that never hardens, a temper that never tires, and a touch that never hurts.” – Charles Dickens

We’ve had a seemingly unending string of clear, sunny days here in Seattle so I trundled my kids off to the park yesterday morning. My toddler was on his strider bike, my 1st grader on her bike and I was pushing the stroller in case of any breakdowns, mechanical or otherwise. Because my son is new at the strider bike it took us so long to make it to the park four blocks away that the first thing we did when we arrived is to have snacks. We found a perfectly shady bench on this perfectly sunny morning and I started to unzip the cooler bag. My daughter, wanting to be the first to crack open the bread sticks with cheese dip, pushed off to run around the bikes, slipped and fell, crying out as she hit the ground.

I wasn’t very sympathetic. The thoughts that crossed my mind were that she was being careless and greedy to have the first go at the snacks and this might have been the fourth fall already on a Monday morning, fortunately none of them serious enough to even warrant a mark. But I knew that adding hurt feelings to a hurt knee wasn’t going to help so I didn’t say anything and bundled her up and gave it a kiss.

That’s when the grace of the moment dropped in. I had a split second of understanding that the cry and the wanting to be first was not really from the fall but from holding it together as her brother celebrated his second birthday and got all the presents. And that my reaction was from being tired from hosting the second birthday party the night before so that my impatience and judgment were the side effects of pretending that I wasn’t.

I have no idea why humans are such complicated creatures so that what seems to be happening rarely is. But I suspect it is so that we are lured to look deeper. It brings to mind the Buddhist tonglen meditation where you breathe in the pain of those around you and breathe out relief. I find that even when I don’t yet know the true cry of the hurt, it still works. I’m starting to think that maybe that’s why mamas have kissed skinned knees for generations upon generations – so they have a moment to breathe out relief and keep their mouths shut. I found that it works because things are as rarely as perfectly sunny as they seem.

Calm and Still

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit” – Aristotle

Bees and I have come to an agreement. I’ll stay still and be calm and they won’t sting me. This agreement has taken a lot of years to broker since when I get stung, I puff up and stay that way, itchy and uncomfortable, for about five days. But I consider it part of my work to breathe deeply and not see them as an enemy.

The agreement went down the drain the other night when a yellow jacket stung my toddler. We were eating outside and they started swarming around. Since he’s just almost two he hasn’t had the chance to do his work and learn to be still and calm. In response to the sting, I wanted to kill them all.

It’s insidious – this ratcheting up of life’s lessons. I’ve come to accept pain as a great teacher, aches as a sign of growth, and to slow down and take life as it comes. But now I see I have so much more to learn about not taking umbrage on my kid’s behalf when pain comes.  This feels especially hard because I think it’s hard to hold other people when they are hurting and I can’t control the pace of how they move through it. In my discomfort, I want to problem solve and be done. It’s also hard because it’s my job to keep my kids safe so it feels like failure.

So all of this swirls as I consider my murderous rage for yellow jackets. My work on being calm and still is never done, I just have more to learn. But I take heart from a great quote I saw last week posted by TheEnglightenedMind622  “Don’t be afraid to start over again. This time, you’re not starting from scratch, you’re starting from experience.” I sit and try to be grateful for the chance to deepen the lesson and try not see neither bees nor pain as an enemy, not even on my son’s behalf.

Ripping Off the Band-Aid

“Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.” – Dr. Seuss

Last night as we were doing the bedtime routine, I started to change the gauze pad that was on my daughter’s knee from a scrape the day before. When we peeled it back, it was stuck to the scrape in the center. Any little jiggling of it caused her to howl with pain. As I weighed my options, I thought of the intro to MIT behavioral economist Dan Ariely’s book, Predictably Irrational. He tells about his experience as a burn patient when he was in his late teens. He was there for a long time so he’d developed a warm relationship with the nurses. When it came to changing his bandages they’d say it was better to just go quickly to experience the intense pain of ripping the bandages off instead of the slow torture of an incremental peel. Well, Dan of course went off to become a celebrated behavioral economist and studied the question of ripping the band-aid off. Turns out, the pain isn’t any less for the patient – but it is less painful for the nurse.

I sat with that as I wanted so badly to rip off the gauze pad. And I thought of the many corollary experiences where I’ve done something similar – delivered the bad news abruptly because I needed to get it off my chest or severed a relationship without any discussion because I couldn’t stand the back and forth. It is a long standing pattern in my family not to say “no” to giving help when we don’t want to but instead make it so painful for the other person to ask that they never bother in the future. But robbing me of the assurance that I’m doing for the other person has made me think twice before proceeding.

So I left the gauze pad hanging off her knee and tucked her into bed. It filled me with self-doubt because as often is the case in the evenings when I’m tired, I have found my inner voice to be much more critical. In this case I worried that I was not helping my five-year-old face pain. This morning when she awoke, the pad had worked itself off in the night.  It turns out the lesson was that some times we can ride the flow to where we are going instead of pulling with force to get the same place. It’s something I’ve been working a lifetime to understand.