Mitt Romney and the Difficulty of Seeing Pain

I was thinking about pain in part because of Mitt Romney saying that he can’t convince poor people to take responsibility for their lives. Because, I assume, he has no empathic access to what’s going on in being poor. He doesn’t understand the difficulties and struggles that make it ridiculous to tell someone that they should just stop being poor and earn enough money to pay income tax.

It can be nearly impossible to describe pain to someone, especially if they haven’t felt a strongly analogous pain. Someone I know once referred to this as the “blindness of the privilege of the healthy-bodied,” not unlike the blindness of the privilege of wealth that Romney asserts. A sort of “buck-up and take it” attitude makes sense to people who’ve never dragged pain around for weeks and months.

I think depression has a similar social status. The undepressed don’t understand why you don’t just get your shit together and stop moping.

It’s hard to explain to someone that, every day, you feel the kind of crushing pain that they experience when, say, they hit their thumb with a hammer. Imagine that extended in time, not diminishing, but becoming a part of the background of your life. But the thing is, such a pain can’t stay in the background. When sufficiently distracted we can all tolerate (or, really, fail to fully notice) even fairly severe pain. Distraction is great. But if the pain is strong enough, a slight break in the distraction brings it out of the background and into the foreground. The pain becomes a distraction from the distraction.

Imagine you’re 8  years old and you’re watching Star Wars for the first time (or some other movie that blew you away as a kid). Your little sister say, “look at this ladybug!” Maybe you’ll glance for a second, but she wants you to keep looking as it crawls around her hand. She is amazed by the ladybug. But how long can you really be drawn to the ladybug with explosions and swinging rescues and villains in weird masks dancing across the screen? You’re not going to be able to focus on the ladybug.

That ladybug is the distraction from pain. A good book, a heated debate on a topic you  care about, the presence of friends you love dearly. The pain is the amazing movie you see when you’re a kid. The slightest break in your attention to the distraction, and you’re back in the movie. And you’re going to miss some of what was going on in the distraction.

What did your friend just say? What cute thing did the ladybug do that your little sister is talking about? What happened in the last two pages of that book?

But even if we can convey the distraction, I don’t think we can always convey the pain to the painless. I think many will still be puzzled why we don’t just buck up.

Part of this is because pain is invisible. I’m pretty sure if you had a large, freshly sliced, open wound running the length of your torso, people would understand why you’re not paying attention, why you get distracted. But with the hidden pain, why don’t you just buck up?

And I want to say that our identities are tied up in our experiences. There’s our social identity, that is, what other people identify us as, and our personal identity (and other identities, obviously). That personal identity doesn’t include all our memories: there are those we reject (“that was so unlike me!”) and those we forget (I’m often amazed at the times when I see an old friend and relate an event we shared that meant so much to me and is completely lost to him or her) but also, beyond memory, there’s the texture of our everyday lives. The things we hold as important, what catches our attention as we walk down the street, and the background of our feelings. No two people take the same walk in the woods. And so there’s always a gap between who we think we are and who other people think we are. And the invisible aspects of our experience exaggerate that gap. Loss, loneliness, depression and pain are individuating experiences, and therefore, I think, are a huge part of the identity-making process that goes on within us. The fact that they’re inescapably private makes them powerful elements in making us separate from others.

And I think everyone has trouble taking seriously the hard-to-see struggles of others. Why doesn’t the depressed person just get out of bed? Why is the chronic pain sufferer so cranky? Why isn’t he getting stuff done instead of sitting there staring into space? Because that space is where the pain is, and it’s hypnotizing. It’s the most dazzling, noisy, amazing show on earth, and it takes a lot to turn one’s head away from it. Just because it’s the most unpleasant show doesn’t mean it isn’t completely captivating.

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