Pain in the Perfect Stranger
“I know it’s hard to keep an open heart
When even friends seem out to harm you
But if you could heal a broken heart
wouldn’t time be out to charm you?”
– Axl Rose, November Rain
Axl Rose had surgery. It all went down early last week, and it was a big success. My little Pug needed help breathing as his God-given anatomy blocked his airways. It was all quite scary and surprisingly emotional. During the 24 hours Axl spent in the hospital, I found myself wanting to reach down and pick up my fur buddy, but he wasn’t there.
Upon completion of Axl’s surgery, the surgeon called to tell me how well everything had gone. He believed this would help Axl immensely as he would no longer be gasping for air in an effort to get oxygen to his little Pug lungs. The scary part was over. And it had worked. And yet, I couldn’t stop crying.
Even writing these words, I’m tearing up. Even holding Axl safely in my lap, I cry, thinking about what could have been. Even knowing he is okay doesn’t seem to be enough anymore. Because- what if?
A few days after Axl came home, a friend called to check on Axl. She listened to me recap the surgery and describe Axl’s slow recovery. She said all the goshes, and I’m so sorrys in the right places and seemingly understood the emotional upheaval I’d just come through. Before ending our conversation, my friend said…
“Caroline, you’re just so strong. Your strength is amazing.”
I knew the comment was intended as a compliment, but I left our call feeling a little sad and a little mad and a lot misunderstood. Hadn’t my friend heard a word I’d said? I’d been scared and anxious and, for three days, had cried at the drop of a hat. Where had she seen strong in any of my actions?
I wasn’t sure what to do with my frustrations and, to be honest, wasn’t even sure who or what I was frustrated with. Was it my friend? Was it Axl for putting me through such worry? Was it the doctor for performing the beneficial life-changing surgery? Was it Tom for saying good-morning? Was it God for making Axl not quite right? Or… maybe.. was it with myself for being frustrated by my friend’s love?
When it was time for Axl’s afternoon dose of pain medicine, I wrapped him in a blanket and cradled him in my arms while I numbed out with a little Bravo TV. I half-listened to a rerun of a housewives reunion show as I rocked Axl back and forth, back and forth. Before deciding Axl was in a deep enough sleep for me to set him down and walk away, I heard a housewife’s words coming through the tv. The housewife said…
“She told me I was strong! But why would she tell me that? Doesn’t she understand that her only seeing my strength discredits all the pain I’ve been through?”
And there it was. The wisdom I’d been seeking- in the form of a frustrated reality star’s confessional.
Here’s the thing- we all have pain. It’s a big part of the human experience. It’s not what we want, and it’s not our fault, but it’s still present. Pain can make us feel ashamed or guilty or scared. We may lose trust and, in turn, close parts of our hearts in an effort to avoid similar pain in the future. Try as we may, the pain is still going to come, and the pain is still going to sting, but the pain is also going to bring us together- if we let it.
I get it- I was raised like so many of us were to smile through my troubles and never let the outside world see my cracks. Since I didn’t show it, I didn’t want to see it. If I wasn’t telling others about my own personal struggle, I most definitely didn’t want to hear about theirs, so- I shut them down. Or they shut me down. Or we shut each other down and kept our conversations and, therefore, our relationships as shallow as a wading pool. No depth, no meaning, no pain, no problem- right?
Oh, so wrong. These days, I tire of a shallow conversation somewhere in between the How are yous? and the greats! and the inevitable next comment about the weather. My tolerance for surface and superficial connection is- well, depthless. I don’t have any left because I now know that unless we are willing to be brave and dive below the surface of our frustrations, we will never develop real-deal friendships. And isn’t that what it’s all about?
In today’s world, it’s sooooo easy to look at others and turn our nose up. We may not agree with their actions or believe what they believe, so instead of trying to understand, we judge. Instead of giving them space to do their own thing, we criticize. Instead of sending them love, we hold on too tightly to our own fear.
We know that the times right now are rocky. Many days, it seems our world is enveloped in pain. We’ve got a seemingly never-ending pandemic and an upcoming political election. Racial tensions are high, and our tolerance for the news is increasingly low. We are all scared. And that fear is creating a lower and lower threshold for discomfort. And the unintended side-effect is a smaller and smaller number of meaningful connections.
I’m not saying we need to love everyone on this earth or even like them, but I am saying and strongly suggesting that before we revert to our default, which is judgment and criticism, maybe we try to remember that every single human on this planet is going through some kind of pain. If they are alive, they are in pain. We all have our own stories, and we never know another’s situation, so let’s just give everyone a much-needed break and send them a little smile and a big high-five for making it through the day because, sometimes, that’s a whole hell of a lot to celebrate.
How amazing would it be if we were all able to say a little something like this…
“Hey there, perfect stranger. I don’t know you, and I may never see you again, but I wanted to tell you that I see you and I hear you and I respect you, and even though I don’t agree with you, I think it’s pretty damn cool that you are here, living your life. Because we are all going through our own pain, and yours is no more less significant than mine.”
Some days may feel we are living in the terrifying “what if” and in the midst of our own emotional upheaval. We may tear up for no apparent reason, and we may need to sit in our pain for a while before we pick ourselves back up. But we’re all going through it. We’re all feeling it. We’re all living through a scary-as-shit year. So maybe let’s try to all go a little easier on one another so that instead of harming hearts, we can heal them.
Before ending this letter, I’d like to use my caring and loving friend’s words and say this to you…
“You are so, so strong. Your strength is amazing. I see strong in all of your actions. I see strong because I know you’re in pain – and still, you are moving through your life. And, just like my little Axl Rose, you will be okay.”
In love and hope,