My slow roll in and around empathy
Image credit: Patrick Kelleher, 9 months post-stroke
This story begins with a question for the reader. Not a hypothetical question—this is the genuine, please comment below or message me kind:
When you observe a person whose movement is other than typical in some way, do you wonder if it hurts?
I’ll explain. Living with a healthy, extremely functional body for most of my life, I knew that some things hurt: injuries, breaks, burns, surgeries, cuts, sprains. So if I saw a person in a cast, I would (unconsciously) conclude that they had an injury and as a result, likely had pain. And so I went about my life. Here’s my admission: I don’t think I really understood that people born with or experiencing long term differences might experience pain with each step or movement. So when I saw an individual with an uneven gait, I wouldn’t wonder if it hurt. “That person’s leg can’t bear weight, so the cane helps,” is what my brain did with that input. I never considered what the experience of “can’t bear weight” might feel like with every step.
When my husband Pat’s stroke happened, the doctors didn’t expect him to be able to walk, but walk he does. With an uneven gait. After six years of walking with him, I know that it often hurts, as does his whole right side. His cane speaks volumes to me. It’s not just a tool—it’s a part the landscape of our lives. It represents hard work and struggle.
During my intense Lyme period, the year of invisible pain when when walking could bring tears, I think those tears instilled my eyes (and their connected brain) with a whole new skill set. These new eyes developed a hyper-vigilance to the pain of others, in addition to my own. Observing people with adaptive devices or differences in their movements released a wave of bodily reaction that I can only liken to that of a nursing mother hearing the cry of a baby. My body absorbed imagined pains. This was way too far on one side of the empathy spectrum for my emotional health, and thankfully, it has leveled off with my own recovery. That insight, though, the sense that people are accomplishing amazing feats just by stepping outside their doors? It has remained fresh.
This is one of those weeks when my body is experiencing some fall-out yuck from the injuries of darker times. Yesterday’s outing felt more like dragging than going to the produce store. It felt...big, I guess. I wrestled my cabbage and apples to the car and was ready to pull out when I noticed the person in the car next to me was wearing oxygen, which reminds me of my mother, so I paused. His door opened, and out came a four-prong cane. The most stable kind, I know, from Pat’s months in rehab. This told me that he requires quite a a bit of support from it. I waited for the whoosh of feeling, but it didn’t arrive. Yesterday’s experience was an evolution, I think.
Yesterday, I felt respect. Admiration. I recognized that he was perhaps managing quite a bit physically in his own shopping journey. I will not say that I was inspired by him (see my blog on this here: https://www.mylifeonitshead.com/blog/im-not-interested-in-being-your-inspiration). I will say that I felt a one-sided connectedness that somehow benefitted me. I took a moment to internally honor how hard he was about to be working to get through the store. I honored that since we are all different, I didn’t have any idea of his inner workings. This might be a favorite experience of his, as it usually is for me. He might, in fact, feel terrific.
No real insight here, nothing original. Just my own journey through empathy. This is where I am so far. I’m sure it will continue to evolve, and I hope it continues in this direction. This one feels pretty good.
Now back to you: When you observe a person whose movement is other than typical or unfamiliar, do you wonder if it hurts?