I hear about my suffering all the time. Most people say that what happened to me is horrific, and that I’ve suffered a lot. That’s one of the reasons I have a blog! But have I? Have I really suffered? I haven’t been friend-less. I haven’t been homeless. I haven’t been food-less. I haven’t lacked medical care. Anyone who’s been in one of those situations might argue that they’re the ones who’ve experienced true suffering. Comparing all of us together, how do we know which predicaments qualify as real suffering? The more I ask the question, the less I know the answer. I feel like a blindfolded little kid trying to pin a “definition tail” on a donkey named Suffering.
Obviously there’s no donkey named Suffering, and no tail for me to pin. What now? I invite you to walk with me on a journey to answer that “What now?” question.
When I arrived at my neurological rehab hospital on Christmas Eve, 2016, the nurses fussed over me as they adjusted my legs, cleaned out my tubes, and gave me my meds. “You’re way too young to be here, honey!” Many of them befriended me and treated me like a diva for the rest of my stay. (Yes, I was at least 20-30 years younger than the other “younger” patients, but still.)
Ivan calculates that I made it back to the mental level of a teenager during my Casa Colina stay. My brain had cleared just enough to begin sorting two things: 1) what had happened to me, and 2) where that landed me in the grand scheme of things. #1 was fairly easy to decipher, so let’s jump to #2. For starters, I began remembering world crises. I recalled many of the news articles I had read that fall season before the accident. Articles about the strife in Syria and the refugee crisis. Who was I compared to all those victims? I was not mutilated by bombings or burned by poisonous gas. Even the politically neutral Western medical care teams could not reach all the injured. Often, those afflicted died in agony. Or perhaps they still drag themselves along in mutilated lives even now. Many of the refugees who escaped Syria weren’t wounded per se, but who was I compared to them, either? I wasn’t country-less, or stuck in a refugee camp, or sent back to my own lethal country.
When doctors and nurses – or anyone for that matter – expressed how sorry they were for me, or how surprised they were that I could still be joyful, I had Syria eating away at the back of my mind.
During my stay in Casa Colina, I also heard about the electrical emergency in Florida. At that point in January 2017, the power failed in most of the state. There were too many hospital patients, and especially too many elderly people in nursing homes, for them to all be transferred to facilities that were still running. Many of them died from the heat. I looked around at my excellent hospital room. I myself had been destined for a nursing home, but some indomitable warriors (you know who you are and THANK YOU!) intervened to get me into Casa Colina. Casa is one of the best neurological rehab centers in California. (FYI, you’re very welcome for that statistic. I was fact checking it online and a pop up ad triggered a cluster of seizures. I was in my wheelchair for the rest of the day.) But anyway, back to my hospital room. I had snowy white sheets that were changed every day, plus lots of blankets from friends and family because MY room was freezing. I had great hospital food. My drugs came on time every four hours. Every four minutes would have been fantastic, but you get my drift 😉 Therapists dragged me and all my broken bones out of bed for therapy three times every day. That therapy part felt awful, but it made me what I am today. Compared to the poor, stifled nursing home residents in Florida, did I really suffer?
On a spiritual level, I think of all the people who have been murdered for their faith around the world. In my life experience, many doctors and nurses actually seem interested in what makes me joyful in the face of losing most of my life. On a practical level I do have to admit that I’ve undergone much mental and emotional loss, but not as much as people who have been abused. My family has suffered with me, but not as much as if I had died.
So did (and do!) I really suffer compared with all the traumatic experiences around the world? That’s a debatable question. To say “No”, would diminish the pain of many people who have been through something similar to what I’ve been through. Maybe they’ve been through less, but have been scarred by the emotional trauma more. To say “Yes” would disrespect the magnitude of any negative experience that is greater than my own. And there is a TON of pain that far exceeds my own.
If suffering is so impossible to nail down, then how do you know when you see real suffering? I think the answer lies in an analogy Ivan uses sometimes. When nurses check on you in the hospital, they always ask you to rate your pain on a scale of 1 to 10. We knew that I had an unusually high tolerance for pain even before the accident. So, after the accident, when a nurse came to give me heavy narcotics and I said I was only at 7 out of 10, what did the 7 really mean? If the nurse went on to the next patient, and that patient had an extremely low level of tolerance for pain, they might also say their pain level was at a 7. Maybe their 7 would only be a 2 on my scale. But the nurse would never argue and tell them that because I had said mine was a 7, theirs could only be a 2.
No. Each person‘s pain as is significant as their ability to tolerate it.
So I think that’s how we should measure suffering. Not on a global scale, which would be literally impossible, but rather on the amount of trauma a specific experience inflicts on a specific individual. I truly believe that there is no ” definition tail” to pin on a donkey named Suffering. Perhaps all we can say is that each person’s pain matters. It matters to them, it matters to God, and it should certainly matter to us. I hope this idea can open our hearts and our eyes to be on the lookout for pain around us, whether or not it measures up to our personal perception of real pain, That’s exactly how God approaches our pain, always has, and always will. (Jesus bore the punishment for our sins, and none of us could ever catch up to that level of suffering!) So maybe it’s better not to navel gaze at our pain, wondering if we’re the ones who’ve really suffered. Maybe it’s better to look outside ourselves and see someone else’s pain, without comparing them to us or anyone else. If you see someone hurting (and you will), take a minute and remind them that you see their pain, and that they matter. Mattering is truly the best medicine!