When I was in the hospital, I told a visiting friend that my pain was “beyond language,” only to have him remind me that I had been speaking about my suffering for the past hour. Perhaps, he mildly remarked, the problem is not that people in pain cannot communicate, but that witnesses to their pain refuse to hear. I was so struck by his observation that I forgot how much pain I was experiencing. For a few moments, his empathy overcame my suffering.
. . .
But pain will always be with us, and by listening closely to the stories patients tell us about their pain, we can gain hints about the nature of their suffering and the best way we can provide succor.
— Joanna Bourke, “How to Talk About Pain,” New York Times, 12 July 2014
Kazimierz Dąbrowski, a Polish psychiatrist, created his own developmental theory that posited psychological tension and anxiety are necessary for growth.
As part of this, he looked at gifted students and found that they displayed overexcitability, getting highly stimulated in five different areas.
Authors like Sharon Lind took to that finding to examine ways to understand and support gifted children. Martha Burge extended this work to suggest that this overexcitabilty is a trait she calls “intense” and is at the core of the behaviours often diagnosed as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). She offers suggestions on how to manage and p this trait to enhance, rather than limit development.
I was chosen to attend programs at the Gifted Child Society in the mid 1960s. I loved the stimulation I got there, even if I had been given little discipline to convert those intense experiences into social successes by my Asperger’s parents.
I have spent a lifetime trying to share my experience of the world with others, to give them the same excitement and joy I get from the process of rebirth, destroying old ideas and assumptions to replace them with the new, the clearer, the more intense. I have found that this process tends to leave me “too hip for the room,” with others “unable to get the joke.”
The amount of language I have gone through just on this blog to try and convey my own experience is awesome. Yet, I know that very amount of verbiage is offputting to other people. They wonder when I will calm down, when this burst of intensity is going to slow down so that things can get back to normal. I am outside of their experience with latent inhibition, where they can slough off what is too intense for them to experience, can remain inside a comfort zone.
If my experience of life is intense, then clearly my experience of pain is also intense. While I have worked extremely hard to use that tension for growth, developing understanding that lets others find me comforting and useful in assisting with their own healing, they also find me too challenging and unpleasant when they want to stay in their own comfort zone.
This has lead me to learn to modulate and attenuate myself when trying to connect to others. That technique has utility, but in the end it is essentially unsatisfying. as I still end up being too intense for other while not getting the kind of nurturing and affirmation that I need.
In her book, The Story of Pain, Ms. Bourke is clear that pain is always relational, that it always exists in a social context. We understand and give voice to our pain only through the social conventions that we swim in, conventions that bound the accepted and accepted narratives around pain.
She was struck when someone understood that the challenge wasn’t in her expression of intense experience, of intense pain, but rather in the limits witnesses have in willingness or ability to enter and engage that experience.
She suggests that the very act of engaging the narratives of other’s pain, of listening closely and with empathy is crucial to enhancing our ability to offer others succour.
And, as Dabrowski might say, is crucial to engaging our own growth.
But my experience tells me that understanding is a bit too intense for most.