Some might say that pain and grief pull people together. I would disagree, though my reasons for disagreement have changed greatly over time. Over the past two months, I have awoken with some amount of pain in my eyes most mornings. Although my rheumatoid arthritis is currently in remission, any excess inflammation always shows up first in my eyes. The dull ache of dryness and inflammation give way to sharp, searing stabs as I open my eyes to the light. The growing lattice-work of scar tissue over my corneas reflects any entering light, brightening everything exponentially. Without my custom hard contact lenses, imagine any normal light level as a flashlight being shone directly into the eyes. That’s been the beginning to my days.
Each morning that I wake up in pain, though, it’s not actually the pain itself that is the most crippling. I can manage that pain well enough to get up, take my medications, and get my day started, however slowly. I’ve done that before, for years on end, with even greater pain. It’s excruciating at times, but it’s manageable. No, it’s not the pain itself but the fear that accompanies it that dilutes my every action of the day. I’m terrified that the pain will continue, that it will get worse, and that it is just a sign that things are about to get a lot worse very quickly.
When your life experience has shown you time and again that you have no control over when the other shoe will drop and that when the drop comes it will be massive and life-altering, you begin to live in constant fear of it. When any sign points to change, you freeze and panic. When things start to go well, you seize up and start preparing.
This never-ending survival mode takes a massive toll on the body, the mind, and especially on relationships. I lived for over a decade too scared to be emotionally intimate with another person for fear that they would leave or that, worse, their proximity to me would eventually cause them immense pain and suffering. Since before I could speak, I have watched those I love most suffer, often because of my own suffering. To know that my suffering causes others to suffer has multiplied my suffering exponentially. So, I lived in fear of getting too close to others because I knew that either they would abandon me when I most needed them or they would stay and suffer, too.
What I have begun recently to understand is that I am not alone in this. My suffering may look different from other people’s suffering, but every person on this planet suffers. Every person on this plant knows pain. What my early childhood suffering did not teach me was that when others suffer in proximity to our suffering, it is not that they suffer because of us but rather that they choose to suffer with us. When we love and are loved in return, we can share the load of suffering, we can lean on one another to better endure the pain, and that act of sharing is multidirectional.
What my infant and toddler and young child self could not understand was that while adults will help their children bear their suffering, other adults will also help carry that load. Children should not ever, and truly cannot, help shoulder that load for the adults in their lives. So, when I felt immense pain as a child, it was my parents’ duty to help me endure it. But as an adult, when we form emotionally intimate relationships, healthy relationships, with other adults, we can and should help each other carry one another’s suffering. When I suffer, it is not a burden to those who love me. It is simply my turn as the impetus. When someone I love is hurting, they are then the impetus, and I will be there to help them carry their hurting.
Humans have never been lone creatures. Even the most introverted of us needs companionship, whether that means venturing into society every few weeks to see friends or living alone in the mountains with a pet goat. We need someone else to help carry the load that is living, existing in this chaos called life. In consumerist culture, we are taught that happiness is the only desired emotion and things are the only way to be happy. But if we look throughout history, we’ll find that humans must experience a wide array of emotions. Happiness and sadness, anger and rejoicing, frustration and inspiration are all wonderful and useful emotions. The only way to truly feel this full spectrum of emotions, especially happiness, is through connection and relationships, including relationship to Self. When we share our suffering, it gives others permission to share their suffering, as well. Even better, it gives us permission to share also our joy.
I used to believe that pain and grief could not bring people together because they were the very things that kept people apart. Now, I still do not believe that suffering brings people together, not necessarily, but I do see that in coming together we may suffer as one. In coming together, we may choose to share the joys and burdens of our lives as one, lifting one another with our rejoicing and holding one another’s sorrows to remain afloat.
Friedrich Nietzsche said that, “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.” I will add that to suffer together is to find community.