I’ve been rereading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams, a story set in Arizona in the eighties. The protagonist, a young woman named Codi, has to deal with returning to her small hometown to help her father who has Alzheimer’s. She’s always felt like an outsider and keeps searching for someone to give her the answers which will make her life make sense and make her belong. Much of the book focuses on her fears of loving others since her mother died, her father retreated emotionally and she had a late-term miscarriage at fifteen. It’s a good book, one of those poignant emotional journey stories.
I’ve been thinking about Codi and her view of the world. She persists in believing that her pain is somehow unique and can never be understood by anyone else. She holds herself apart from others, using superficial or artificial personas, and then complains about feeling isolated and unconnected. She’s full of anger at her father and sister for abandoning her, although she focuses most of her anger on her father.
It is true that no one else can ever completely understand your pain. It’s a completely subjective experience and since we’re not telepaths or empaths, we can’t know for sure what other people’s pain feels like. We can only extrapolate from our own experiences. It’s a system which has worked pretty well for us as a species but it’s not perfect.
In Buffy, there was an episode where Buffy got telepathy. At the end, she’s talking to a boy who she believes is planning a killing-spree. He complains that no one notices he’s suffering. She tells him no one sees his pain because they’re all too busy silently screaming out their own.
We all scream silently and pray someone hears us. We hold back and hope someone else will reach out to us. But most of us are deaf to the screams around us. We look at the surface and marvel at what a competent, attractive person someone is, never knowing that inside their head is a very different picture. We assume everyone can see our own internal pictures, forgetting that we can’t see theirs.
The thing Codi doesn’t realize is that we have to communicate our pain to have it healed. People may never understand your exact pain but they know their own. They know how awful pain is but they’re not good at picking up when other people are in pain.
It’s hard to reach out, especially when you already feel vulnerable. But it’s usually not as awful as you’re afraid it will be. Sometimes people really are there to catch you when you fall.