As I begin to write pieces of my own chronic pain story, I find myself contemplating that common human need to be known and understood. Living the last few years as a chronic pain sufferer, one of the most difficult aspects of this struggle has been knowing how to wisely share my story with others.
Perhaps more than anything else, I become angry when I am misunderstood. When people doubt me, misconstrue what I am saying, or see me as other than I am, I am deeply hurt to my inner core, just longing to be known and desiring to improve my ability to connect and express. This, I believe, explains my fear of speaking my story, unless I can be sure that my words are clear. And to some extent, all stories of pain and hurt, tales of suffering and sickness, are told because there is a need to be understood.
When the pain doesn’t go away, it must at least be heard and acknowledged, documented and detailed, and there is great peace when someone simply says, “I recognize your pain.”
Pain is desperate to be heard; it longs to be known by someone other than the one who experiences it. Describing pain and talking about illness are no easy tasks, requiring both the willingness and vulnerability of the speaker and the empathy and respect of the listener. And perhaps these two barriers are why pain-sufferers so often bear their burden in silence. Too often betrayed by those who listen, the speaker becomes silent, burrows inward, and begins to see isolation as a safe haven, and certainly a safer location than vulnerability. This betrayal is ever so subtle – a turning away of the eyes in misunderstanding, a shortening of conversation in a hurry to return to important tasks, a moving on to others who are more able, perhaps even a complete disregard for difficult experiences.
Living in pain is a lonely and isolated battle. It longs for an elusive companionship not often offered. And so, the first step for those who bear pain is to find a kindred spirit, a soulful listener, who will offer up time and sacrifice personal comfort to hear another’s uncensored story of pain. In speaking pain stories, hiding the truth is easier more often than not. As chronic pain sufferers we also hold much responsibility for the lack of interest in our stories. A dismissive, “I’m fine” to a stranger, or the repetitive complaining of “I hurt so badly” to a family member are often the only words that come. And this manner of speaking becomes a pattern so ingrained that we forget to speak the truth.
The truth of our stories is that pain cuts to the core of our being, the center of our identity, and the depths of our soul. The truth is that we are not fine, and our sometimes ceaseless complaints of pain are only outward symbols of a much deeper and weighty meaning. A story well-told does not dismiss or gloss over the truth, and neither does it engage in repetitive complaints. Rather it is told once, or twice, in glorious depth and detail, in such a manner that it is remembered and need not be repeated. For now the listener knows and need only be kept informed as the story progresses, changes, and continues.
Telling our stories is part of the Christian life; I believe it is an aspect of sharing our burdens with one another. But in this sharing of burdens, there is so much potential for misinterpretation, bitterness, and holding back the whole truth. And so we must learn what it means to be good storytellers and good storylisteners as we walk alongside those in similar and un-similar battles.