The Pain that Wants to Kill Us

How one writer is learning that feeling the pain of others will shatter her heart…and that’s a good thing.

The author’s daughter at the show.

It’s been hot recently. After a cold, rainy start to June, summer finally burst onto the scene here in New England.

I spent the first of these summery days outdoors at a day-long horse show. My daughter is a competitive equestrian, and show season has just begun. The temperatures rose to the high 90s, and the sun was blazing, so I and scores of other show parents slathered on sunscreen, donned our sun hats, and jockeyed for position under the few shade trees at the stable last weekend.

At these horse shows, parents look out for each other, and each other’s children. Cold cloths were passed around to keep the riders (dressed in show jackets, long breeches, black helmets, and gloves) from overheating. Buckets of sloshing water were carried to the horses between their courses, which they nosed and drank thirstily. One parent brought coolers of seltzer, and the barn had apples and juice pouches on ice. A lunch run was made, with a dozen sandwiches and bags of chips on the return. Younger siblings, non-riders and somewhat bored, found each other and created games to pass the time. Dogs, ever-present at every barn we go to, ran under foot until they grew too hot, then flopped sideways under the trees, panting.

I spent the day with people who tended to one another with care and attention. We sweltered and kept each other safe.

The next morning, I woke to this: “Two Toddlers Die After Being Left In Car for 15 Hours.” I read the headline, and the one that followed: “Mom Ignored Their Cries.” My heart flew out of my chest, and I snapped the phone shut.

When my husband came into the room a few minutes later, I looked at him wordlessly. “What?” he said. I could barely speak. “Two toddlers were left in a car for 15 hours.” He cut me off: “No. I don’t even want to know. No.”

We sat there in silence. My heart was in a million pieces — for the children, for the mother, only 19 years old herself. For the conditions which created this — which created her.

I saw my aversion to feeling this pain. I saw how I wanted to undo reading that headline, undo seeing the grainy grey-shade photo of the mother. I saw how much I wanted the whole world to have the day I had had, to have the life that I have all the time: in the company of other people who care for one another, who care for the children and animals. I saw how much I wanted to rescue those children, and the mother. I saw how misplaced that wanting was.

I saw how much I seek to avoid feeling the pain, any pain. And yet: this happens every day. Multiple times a day. All over the world. Our access to knowing about these events is immediate and almost involuntary. The news of life outside of our own daily movements comes to us whether we want it or not. That I happened to see this story is thanks to an algorithm in my newsfeed. But it’s regularly any one of these: Another brutal murder of a Black person/immigrant/animal/child; the catastrophic neglect that is the refugee crisis in Syria; the detailed account from a friend of her rape by her father when she was 12, her subsequent pregnancy and abortion.

The stories give me nightmares. I feel them deeply. I can barely stand the pain.

But.

The edge here for me is to be willing to feel the pain.

Brené Brown writes, “Empathy is a choice, and it’s a vulnerable choice. In order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.” I have spent many years trying not to feel the deepest pain in my own experience. That’s meant that I’ve also avoided conversations and experiences that require that I feel it in order to connect. I’ve avoided the incredible responsibility that comes with actually being a human, alive: That we are connected; that this connection is always a choice, but that as a human, I actually have that choice. I get to choose.

I cannot rescue those children, or that mother. But I can choose the vulnerability that comes from feeling pain. I’ve gotten better at it; I know now that feeling pain won’t kill me, despite a stubborn, lifelong primal belief otherwise. I can feel this and survive. And what’s better is that feeling this allows for a connection that was previously unavailable. As Brown says, “Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.”

Perhaps that is the way in which any of us can rescue anything out of the wreckage that is our treatment of each other now. Perhaps, in being willing to feel the deepest vulnerabilities within ourselves, we are building the connection we need to turn the tide on what seems like a relentless, destructive upsurge of disconnection.

Is that true? I don’t honestly know. Will being willing to feel vulnerable, and connect, heal the planet? Save others? I just don’t know.

Feeling the pain for these children, and this mother, will not save them. But I think it will save me, and that’s probably the only place I can start.

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