I feel your pain.

On yesterday’s evening news there was a story about a memorial service for the Korean students whose bodies have been found among those who were killed when their ferry capsized last week.  A relative of one of the students said something during an interview that reminded me of what some friends and relatives would do during Laura’s illness.

Often when I would be telling someone about a problem solved, particularly about pain or discomfort being relieved, that person would want to go back and dwell on how Laura must have suffered during the time it took to get relief.  Worse, if I told some people about a pain or discomfort that still had not been resolved, they would want to go over Laura’s suffering again and again, in detail, with the message that it had to be stopped, but with no idea as to how that might happen.

When Laura was first ill and I was just learning the caregiver role, these responses would upset me very much.  I took them as criticisms of me for not taking proper care of Laura.  Being raised as a good Catholic boy who would examine his conscience every week before Confession, I could certainly find enough faults on my own without this “help.”

After enough incidents like this, I started to realize that what they were doing was all about them, not about me or really about Laura at all.   Perhaps they began doing this kind of mental flagellation because they thought that was a way to show empathy, a way to put themselves in the place of someone else who was suffering.  But over the years, it seemed that some found a perverse satisfaction in lacerating themselves and others like this.  Usually they weren’t paying attention to their effect on their listeners.

On the Sunday afternoon six days before she died, the fentanyl and Percocet were no longer sufficient to hold off Laura’s headaches.  I had to call and get permission from the hospice nurse to start administering morphine, and to get the right dosage.  It took about two hours from the time that Laura started grimacing and pointing to her head to the time that hospice called with permission and instructions. It was a weekend.  Also, the practical nurse and I had been admonished early in Laura’s hospice because she had told me it was ok to give Laura morphine.  The powers-that-be wanted to hold up on morphine until nothing else worked.  So, that Sunday like a good Catholic boy I did what I was told and waited for permission.

In a later telephone call I told someone that the morphine was working.  Once again, that person started exclaiming about how Laura must have suffered during the time it took to give her the morphine.  Obviously by the way I wrote the last paragraph I was doing my own self-laceration about the wait.  By this time, however, I had had enough of the extra “help.”  I cut in and said that I felt that I was being criticized.  Oh, no!  That’s not what was meant at all.  Nothing but praise and gratitude for me.  Finally after having done this throughout the 18 months of Laura’s illness, this person paid attention to the person being spoken to.  That’s not empathy.

During the last ten days of news about the sinking of the Korean ferry with so many girls Anne Mei’s age, I have thought about how I would feel if she had been on that ferry.  She has a number of friends who are Korean, and I have thought about them.  When I see the angry and sobbing parents of these girls on television, I can understand how they feel the way they do.  Powerless to just go out to the boat and get their children.  But I can’t say that I feel the same pain that they do.

When a relative of the Korean girls started talking yesterday about how they must have suffered and how long they must have suffered as they drowned, trapped in a sinking boat, her words did not put me down in the boat with the girls.  I could see the picture of the water closing in, the darkness, the chaos, the fear, the choking.  I could imagine what it would be like if I were there, but the picture was all in the conditional (if I were there).  I was not there.  I did not feel alone and helpless.

Two factors distanced me from the feelings the relative was trying to convey.  First, the bad associations of her words with what people said during Laura’s illness.  Second, she used her words as weapons to prod the government to get the children out of the boat immediately and to punish the government because the pace of the operations so far meant that only bodies were going to be retrieved at this point.  The first factor was not her concern, and the second was her intent with which I have no quarrel.  But together they meant that I did not feel the pain of these drowning children in the way she meant to evoke.

We will explore the language of protest when we look into what Laura was doing when she told people that she had received “three kiss-offs” from her three physicians.  In many ways the Korean woman on the news last night was using language, rather effectively, to protest what she saw as the slow action of the Korean government.  It was very easy to share in her anger, but the fact that she embodied that anger in political rhetoric made it more difficult to feel the pain of those children in the way she wanted.

Bill Clinton’s phrase “I feel your pain” quickly became a punch line, an object of satire.  People doubted that he really did or could feel the pain of people dying of AIDS, who were the subject of the exchange which led to this famous expression.  Of particular interest about this 1992 exchange is that Clinton was not trying to convey the appearance of someone in pain over the suffering of others.  Clinton was angry at a heckler who wouldn’t listen or let Clinton complete a sentence.  Admittedly in Clinton’s case that means a three page paragraph.  In any case, the point is that he blurted out the I-feel-your-pain line in the middle of an impassioned defense of himself.

CLINTON. Let me tell you something. If I were dying of ambition, I wouldn’t have stood up here and put up with all this crap I’ve put up with for the last six months.  …   And let me tell you something else. … You do not have the right to treat any human being, including me, with no respect because of what you’re worried about. I did not cause it. I’m trying to do something about it. I have treated you and all the people who’ve interrupted my rally with a hell of a lot more respect than you’ve treated me, and it’s time you started thinking about that.

I feel your pain, I feel your pain, but if you want to attack me personally you’re no better than Jerry Brown and all the rest of these people who say whatever sounds good at the moment. If you want something to be done, you ask me a question and you listen. If you don’t agree with me, go support somebody else for President but quit talking to me like that. This is not a matter of personal attack; it’s a matter of human wrong.  …  I understand that you’re hurting, but you won’t stop hurting by trying to hurt other people. http://www.nytimes.com/1992/03/28/us/1992-campaign-verbatim-heckler-stirs-clinton-anger-excerpts-exchange.html

Just saying “I feel your pain” is not the same as feeling another’s pain, nor does the mere utterance of this statement foster the appearance that it is sincere.  Body language and eye contact evidence to some extent what’s going on inside the person making the statement.  Even then both by intellectually parsing the statement and by our own feelings, we can tell that one does not have to be in pain to feel another’s pain.  And if the person speaking is palpably hurting, we still can sense that he feels his own pain, not the pain of someone else.

That last point is the key to what made Clinton’s initial assertion “I feel your pain” believable.  He was expressing his own hurt and lashing back at someone who was hurting him and telling that person to stop.  Pain is an experience you must try to stop.

Outside that context “I feel your pain” can sound insincere, tendentious, pompous.  We can imagine and judge the sincerity of that statement when it comes from the mouth of someone dealing with their own pain.


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