It was what we called “Pain Day” at the clinic where I worked, when patients piled in to get steroid injections, hoping to alleviate their chronic back pain. Covering for our normal front desk girl, I checked in patient after patient for a couple of hours until I noticed a low ache gurgling up in my belly.
I knew the feeling: the quiet unsettled shifting of my inner tectonics. Like warm hands hovering just over my skin, close enough that I could feel the radiation of warm discomfort, but far enough away that it could slip out of my awareness, leaving just the sense of otherness nearby.
There’s a practice I’ve had since I was young when this feeling rises up. I thumb through every recent interaction, every possible snag, like going through a Rolodex, asking which unsavory thing it is until I’ve found it. I know I’ve landed on the thing because my body offers just the subtlest gift of comfort. Knowing the name of the pain is a salve, I think, even if nothing can be done to soothe it gone.
Sitting at the front desk, separated from the clinic’s patients by a thick layer of glass, I listened to their muffled conversational sounds, and ran my mind’s fingers along the last couple of hours. I looked for the not-right thing tightening in my chest.
I looked up when the shape of someone in a hospital gown came through the recovery room door on the other side of the waiting room — an older woman I’d just checked in, lips glossed and fake eyelashes well-combed, recovering from a broken hip and traveling to see her daughter in Virginia soon; she was hoping the injection in her back would alleviate the pain of sitting on an airplane for several hours. Pale blue smock over her skinny jeans and ballet flats, her perfect blond hair tucked into a hair cap, she was asking her husband for something out of her purse.
There, tucked inside the smallness this simple exchange, I found the thing that had been curled up in me, slowly stretching out, pressing itself into me.
I passed my mind over the other exchanges I’d witnessed between these people in pain and the network that formed around them — the people who’d come to hold open the door, drive the car, steady the hand. All of them, like drops of food coloring in a tall glass of water, curling and swirling into an unnamably mingled color, both beautiful and disquieting in its richness.
This was my discomfort. This is always the discomfort.
Compassion for one another does not stop at our doorsteps and leave a neatly-folded invitation. True empathy walks right in as soon as we open the door, upsetting the protection of our isolation.
It’s a confounding complexity, as it was for me that day, to be both drawn in by the sameness we encounter in other people seemingly so separate from us, while at the same time repulsed by the feeling it rouses in us: the awkwardness of intentional avoidance, the helplessness we might feel at our inability to ease whatever pain we’re witnessing. It’s an obvious outcome to expect that we’d avoid one another in order to avoid the discomfort of the empathy we rouse in one another. And so we do — we choose not to make eye contact, we smile tersely at the stranger on the elevator, our eyes and hearts constantly cast down, like headlights at night, aimed only at the road directly in front of us, lest the wildness of dark overwhelm us on our path.
But this is not what we’re called to, and never has been. Even if it doesn’t seem like a matter of survival (it is), it is a matter of health — spiritual health, health of the heart, and the quiet of the mind that we almost never find but are always in search of, consumed as we are by our own petty woes and the perpetual seeking of nextness that so marks the human condition. It can feel impossible to feel the overwhelming contradiction of empathy move us both toward and away from one another.
But I hope we will feel it. I hope we’ll enter into one another’s pain, and into our own. I hope we can let ourselves feel the discomfort of our aloneness and let it call us toward one another, as daughters and sons of the Supreme. And if nothing can be done to ease the suffering, to maybe just sit a little while beside it without looking away.