This was a fairly average week for me as I moved in and around my community. I ran into three women I know who have lost children, one of them to suicide. I spotted a patient of mine in church who is losing her fight against cancer, and another one who is still waiting for her test results. I spent an evening with a friend who donated a kidney to save her brother’s life.
Because I practiced medicine in my community for over thirty years, I have a unique vantage point when it comes to knowing who is in pain. I run into patients on the street, at the post office, and in the sub shop in town. I know who just had open heart surgery, whose marriage is in trouble, and who is battling addiction. Still, I don’t think these encounters are unique to physicians.
Whether we realize it or not, we all live among people who have endured heartache and suffering that would bring Job to tears. We encounter them wherever we go. The problem is we don’t always recognize them.
“It may take a doctor
to diagnose someone’s disease,
but it takes a friend
to recognize someone’s suffering.”
You can’t always tell by looking at a person what they’re up against—that divorce is in the air, or that a coworker’s cancer came back. It’s hard to know when someone is contemplating suicide. They don’t want anyone to know so they do what they can to hide it.
Many people in pain get out of bed in the morning just like the rest of us. There is nothing strange or special about the way they dress. They get their children off to school, and spend time tending to the house or they go to their jobs. They are right there behind us in the checkout line at the grocery store, on the treadmill next to us at the gym, and in the pew in front of us at church. Or on the cushion next to us in meditation. We can’t see their broken hearts or crushed spirits so it can be hard to pick them out of the crowd.
“The moment you change your perspective
is the moment you rewrite
the chemistry of your body.”
~Dr. Bruce Lipton~
This means a couple of things. First of all, if we don’t know their stories, we can’t help people heal. When we meet them on the street, we can comment on the weather, or commiserate over the sad state of politics in our country, or chat about the grandchildren, but we are prevented from expressing our concern for them, or sharing words of comfort and encouragement. In our offices, we ask about the onset, severity, and timing of their symptoms, but our questions dance around the underlying pain that is eating them alive. As health care providers, therapists, and caretakers, as neighbors and friends, as co-workers and acquaintances, we are helpless unless we know the true story. The whole story.
But enough about us.
Untold illness narratives have a way of hiding out in the subconscious while wreaking havoc with the body. They play tricks on people. As Rita Charon puts it, in her ground-breaking book, Narrative Medicine-Honoring the Stories of Illness, “The body and the self keep secrets from one another.” The body may experience chest pain, when the problem is despair. The patient may see a physical therapist for a back injury when the cause of his pain is anger. People may turn to opiates for relief when their pain arises out of fear.
“The healing process begins
when patients tell of symptoms
or even fears of illness—
first to themselves, then to loved ones,
and finally, to health professionals.”
Unless we seek out and explore the anger, or despair, or fear that is at the root of their pain, nothing we say or do will relieve the cause of suffering. All the medication in the world will not solve the problem.
“The shortest distance between
truth and a human being
is a story.”
~Anthony de Mello~