It’s no secret that we live in a culture that idolizes productivity and ability and youth. Ours is a culture of ideals. We set up shrines to perfect skin, lithe bodies, and Instagrammable-health.
Recently, when a friend began suffering from a period of illness, she confessed to me: “My family is healthy, I should be too.”
I realized in the word should, that my friend and I had secretly opted into the same club. We two believed it was our birthright to health—for at least a little while. And yet, inducted into a new family of chronically ill friends, I have come to see that I am one of many who endure suffering through pain.
“I just take it for granted that I’m supposed to be healthy,” my friend had said. I wanted to tell her, “I’m not supposed to be ill, either,” as if this was a fact I could prove with documentation.
I could detail my genetic pedigree, the fact that my almost 80-year old grandfather currently runs a few miles a day. These things I believe should belie my illness, the ways in which I’m not predisposed to any of this. The ways in which I should have escaped illness, but the truth is, I’ve believed all my life that I deserve a life free from pain. I’ve bought in.
I would never admit to this in unfamiliar company, but inside, I imagined it belonged to me in a matter of fact sort of way. Chronic illness, cancer, disability, and pain were for other people.
One of my friends who suffers from chronic back pain remembers having someone in church come up to her and say, “I just can’t imagine being in pain, I’ve never been pain in my life.” My friend jokingly said she wanted to slap her, and I can certainly understand the impulse.
But then I remember that I was the woman who offhandedly remarked about a lack of pain. For so many years, my body did exactly what it was told to. I could swim and jump and run and eat without pain. Pain was fleeting, something to be dispensed with as soon as possible. In fact, for many years, I pitied those who were disabled. I nodded my head when elderly family members detailed their health problems, and what I was really thinking was far from empathetic. What went through my mind was: I’m so glad that’s not me.
I performed the perfunctory actions required of me when someone mentioned their physical problems. I groaned sympathetically. I spoke words of affirmation. I tried to avoid sounding too sanctimonious. But really, in the end, I was just glad that I had skirted that landmine.
But life changed, and pain brought empathy and solidarity in its wake. The funny thing is, the minute you admit you’re in pain, other people who suffer appear out of the woodwork.
I’m at the park, talking to another mom in our playgroup whose youngest daughter has had ophthalmologic cancer. They visit the hospital every three weeks, trekking hours away for care. She’s missed a few of her eldest daughter’s school events while taking her youngest for cancer treatment.
When I mention that our family has been going through some health issues, and that my jaw is the problem, she furtively tells me that she has headaches. “Several days out of the week,” she tells me. She continues, “It’s really hard with the kids, because I want to be the mom I need to be.”
That God would deign to give her headaches as she deals with her 1-year old daughter's cancer is one of the baffling eccentricities of pain and suffering.
I want to hug her for admitting this to me right here, while our kids go hand-to-hand on the jungle gym, and I also feel camaraderie in our mutual suffering, which gives us a commonality not able to be forged in any other furnace.
For a moment, as I talk with this mother, I realize the bond of gratitude and reciprocity, and a deep and abiding sense of mutual dependence in weakness. Between us, as we pause in thought, there is an acceptance of limitation so rare in today's pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps culture.
I’m surprised by the feeling, and awed by it.
As I walk away from our interaction, I'm so stunned by the grace of not being alone in suffering. With this mother that I didn't know very well, pain allowed us to admit—in the briefest exchange—the shared compassion of what it means to be human and vulnerable.