“Oh, it hurts.”
At first read you might imagine the woman – a stranger in all senses – grasping her chest (or arm or foot), wincing at the embarrassment of Pain in Public.
On second read you might imagine the woman saying it in dismay, as if she were the cause of the pain.
On third read you might imagine it as a question.
You might even imagine her saying it with a Gollum-esque inflection, making me the “it” and the hurt a surprise. (Which gives me a perverse giggle every time I picture it. Oh, it hurtsssss itself doessss it? The world needs more Tolkein, always.)
But no matter how many times you read it, sounding out the the three words in your head, you would be wrong because words simply do not do justice to her voice. Punctuation and black-and-white and spellcheck only take away from the startling sentence, erupting like a flock of birds taking wing. But only to the next wire. Not really gone.
I wish you could hear her, her voice filled with a poignant blunt-tipped empathy, as she looked into my eyes and said simply, “Oh, it hurts!” And then she reached out and ever-so-gently laid her hand on my cheek. She smiled – a small smile that acknowledged my hurt and her hurt and past hurts and future yet-to-be-hurts. This last thought made me remember Jelly Bean who was standing at my leg watchfully, waiting to see what I did with this ever stranger woman’s hand on my cheek and words in my ears and pain in my heart.
“It does,” I answered her, with more kindness than I’ve been able to muster for anyone for weeks.
She asked no questions nor offered any advice but after a smile-lit pause that managed to simultaneously convey the breadth of the human condition and the fact that there was a green tag sale going on right now, continued pushing her cart down the aisle at Goodwill*. By the time she was to the housewares section her face was already forgotten to me – she was old-ish? brown-ish? short-ish? – but I kept her words and kindness in my memory.
That was this morning and tonight I feel the warmth of her hand, still, on my cheek. Like a bird on a wire. Not really gone.
There’s a freedom to wearing your pain on the outside, a fact I recently (re)discovered after emotionally vomiting all over the Internet last week. Keeping up appearances and faking-it-till-you-make-it-ing only lasts for so long. Eventually the thread binding your reality to your public persona pulls so tight it snaps. The curtain drops. The tears flow. You’re no longer obligated to automatically say “fine” when people ask how you are doing.
“Hey! How are you?”
“I’ve been better.”
“Oh! Um. Uh. Ok. What’s wrong?”
See? Liberating! No matter what happens next – and believe me when I say I’ve had all sorts of responses ranging from sympathy to advice to awkward silence to laughter – it feels kind of amazing to just put it out there. I’m having a sad. Why?No good reason, actually! Brain chemistry. Genes. Life changes. That I had to watch my oldest son get an abscessed tooth pulled when I can’t even watch a baby tooth fall out without dying a little. The fact that I’m not a fairy in human disguise after all and will never summon a unicorn or sail with Reepicheep to the end of the world or tesseract or have twins named Anne and Diana. There are plenty of things to be sad about if you really put your mind to it! And I was unabashedly wallowing in all of it.
Of course this also makes you intensely, gut-wrenchingly vulnerable. You feel it all – every whisper, look, slight (imagined or real), scream – too much. Where my depression last week was a crashing ocean of sad that kept me in mostly in bed and mostly in my head, this week it has settled out into a grim bone-weary fatigue. The passion of the dark ride is gone and I’m left, still on the ocean, but with no oars, hoping the sail takes me somewhere better. Hoping there are no sharks in the water as I go through all the daily motions of child care and shopping and cleaning and exercising and working and everything else that getting out of bed entails.
Unfortunately this new functionality means I (uncharacteristically, I hope) snap at friends, write rude diatribes on Facebook, ignore phone calls, write half-heartedly, and obsess over small things like grams of sugar while ignoring large things like paying the bills. It means I smear my carefully applied eyeliner off with the back of my hand because putting makeup on dead eyes is a masquerade that fools absolutely no one. The next morning I wake up and remember why I have makeup on my hand and want to put my pillow back over my face. Faces are terribly vulnerable possessions.
Especially when a stranger touches yours. Didn’t she know that touching a stranger’s face without permission breaks the cardinal rule of being a stranger? How did she know I wouldn’t yell at her? Or slap her hand away? How do I know she wasn’t speaking through a veil of Alzheimer’s or a language not mine or a mental illness?
I think it doesn’t matter, actually. Her touch snapped something open in me. Without her hand I wouldn’t have heard her voice. Oh, it hurts. Of course it does. Everyone hurts. And even though we all feel it, it doesn’t make it less legitimate or real for each person. Her simple act of reaching out to me – quite literally – reminded me of what it means to feel.
(c) Richard Renaldi This is my personal favorite of the bunch. I just love how soft their expressions are.
NPR recently did a story about Richard Renaldi, a photographer who recently explored this very idea with a project called Strangers Touching (from which all the pictures in the post come from). To get his shots, Renaldi asked disparate groups of strangers to pose intimately with each other – as if they were friends, family or lovers – and watched the real interactions that took the place of posed ones. Renaldi talks about how at first the situations felt artificial and contrived with all the strangers wanting to just hold hands. But he pushed for something more real by encouraging the strangers to embrace their discomfort and then reach through it to connect with another human being.
Here he describes one of his favorite photos:
“There is one of two women at a Buddhist temple in Hawaii. And one of the women, she worked at the temple, and she was bald because she had lost her hair undergoing chemotherapy. And she seemed somewhat frail but also cheerful and just quite lovely, warm. And then I found another woman who was there. She was on her honeymoon. She was a tourist from New Jersey. The woman from New Jersey, I had her put her hand caressing the other woman’s face in a very, very tender way. And when you see the picture, it reads as such a moment of tenderness.”
In a way I had my own Strangers Touching moment today and while I’m not often a fan of forced intimacy, in this case it was exactly what I needed to wake me up. To remind me that we always have the choice to push through our fears, anxieties and discomfort – our hurt – to make a connection with someone else. And that connections are always worthwhile.
And yet, for all its philosophical wonder, a neurotransmitter imbalance isn’t mitigated entirely by epiphanies. (Oh if only it worked that way!) As I pondered whether there is a way to simultaneously live with sadness but not live in sadness, I came across this passage in Chemistry of Joy by Henry Emmons, M.D.:
“But beyond our genetic makeup, we’ve learned to react, automatically and unconsciously, to life’s little stresses and insults, and […] our reactions can do more damage than the initial source of pain. So regardless of our temperament or bio-chemical “givens,” our job is to change our automatic and destructive reactions into conscious and healthy responses.
In this way, suffering is optional, although pain – both physical and emotional – is not. Even if we live in constant pain, we have a choice about whether or not to suffer with it. Although thoughts and feelings will arise, seemingly of their own accord, we can choose to focus on those thoughts and feelings, to feed them with our attention – or we can choose to let them pass while we focus on other things.” [Emphasis mine]
I will add that this philosophy is just one piece of Emmons more comprehensive treatment for mood disorders and he only suggests it after you’ve established the basics of healthy eating, sleeping, exercising and working. He’s not opposed to meds either but rather than see them as a cure, he sees them simply as one weapon among many in his arsenal. But I love this quote because it reminds me that I am not a victim to my emotions but am still the captain of my own journey. I’m just grateful I have so many wonderful people to accompany me on it – always like birds on the next wire. Not really gone.
People are so, so beautiful. My dear friend Dr. Jon recently wrote me that “There are two ways to bring light into the world, either by being a candle or a mirror – and at different times we are one or the other, even occasionally both.” Today this woman was my candle. Today I hope to be the mirror, reflecting her light. Will I be brave enough some day to be the candle and look a stranger in the eyes – really look – and say with no judgement, “Oh, it hurts!”? I hope so. Will I be kind enough to look myself in the eyes – really look – in the mirror and say with no judgement, “Oh, it hurts.”? I think I just did.
Have you ever had a stranger physically touch you? (wow, that sounds icky – which I suppose illustrates again how difficult such a simple thing is for us to talk about!) Ever had a funny/interesting/weird encounter with a stranger? What happened??
*I’ve had more than one person ask me how I meet all these “crazy” people in my life. I’m assuming they are asking for instructions because “crazy” = awesome in my book and I hope I never lose my gift for attracting it. So step 1: Hang out on the fringes sometimes – thrift stores, plasma centers, Wal-Mart, public libraries, subways. Step 2: Pop your invisibility bubble and make eye contact. Step 3: If someone talks, answer them. Everyone deserves to be heard.