The secret burden of pain
When we have good news to share, we want to shout it on the rooftops — but most of us settle for posting it on Facebook or Instagram with a cute snapshot and a hashtag. When tragedy strikes, we turn inwards, either on our own pain or away from the suffering of others. Don’t tell us about your ugly, messy divorce. Don’t talk about the family member who died from suicide. Keep your abuse to yourself, your doctor, and your priest.
I often talk about Dinah’s Voice to friends who aren’t involved in the organization or any of our efforts. I talk about how it’s both healing and traumatizing to be so deeply involved regarding sexual violence. I’ll talk about the highs and the lows that come with advocacy work and the struggles of starting with nothing. The standard response is a polite nod, a sentence or two, and then the subject is changed to their kids or their work or something that isn’t uncomfortable and painful. It’s weird how no one wants to spend all their time talking about sexual violence in student environments…
Because at the core of sexual violence services, is a great big bundle of hurt.
Pain is awkward. Suffering is uncomfortable. Knowing that it is occurring in the lives of others is even more so, and embracing others’ pain is almost unimaginable.
“I wish I knew what to tell you.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
We are often left feeling so utterly helpless when personal anguish is shared — but we must understand that sharing the burden does not always mean the speaker is looking for a resolution. Sometimes all that is needed is a witness, support. Suffering kept silent is a heavy-weight on the soul.
The (reasonable) fear of pain-shaming
Pain is a universal feeling, one that nearly every person on the planet has experienced. Nevertheless, it’s something that is rarely, if ever, discussed seriously or in-depth in our average communities. Yet, platitudes abound regarding pain and how we should approach it:
“It gets better with time.”
“Keep your chin up.”
“Time heals all wounds.”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
Suffering is uncomfortable to witness in others. It’s downright awkward. Why? Because we’re raised in a society, in a culture, that is dismissive of pain. If a man displays pain, he needs to “man up.” If a woman displays pain, she is either being hysterical or seeking attention. In any case, displaying pain is equated with weakness, and weakness is seen as an undesirable trait. So at some point in our lives, we accept the lie that pain is shameful.
Embracing the burden as a community
Even on forums such as Reddit, anonymous people make even more anonymous throwaway accounts because they don’t want their pain, their dark parts, the uncomfortable bits of their lives to be connected to their regular anonymous accounts. When it comes to our own pain, we are made to think that it is shameful and somehow our fault: depression, anxiety, grief, hurt, addictions, hang-ups, they are all our fault, our burden, our dirty little secret. Beneath the veneer of society is a droning hum, telling us not to upset the world by bringing our shame into the light or out in the open, because we can’t let on that life isn’t Insta-perfect.
There is no shame in pain. It’s an inevitable part of life, and that’s ok. Pain can be even useful if we deal with it appropriately (after all, it exists to serve a purpose). If we leave pain bottled up inside, it will fester and turn poisonous, twisting our thoughts and emotions against ourselves. But experiencing and processing suffering in a healthy way can help us to better know ourselves, to recognize strengths and weaknesses in ourselves and others, to overcome fears, to better experience the positive spectrum of emotions, and invites us to step into a greater capacity to love.
Beyond its effect on our own inner experience, tragedy invites us to embrace community, to seek out help, assistance, friendship. Yet sharing suffering is frowned upon in society at large. If we can learn to share our burden of pain, if we can — as a community — face the utterly radical idea that suffering is normal, what benefits might our society experience?
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Sexual Violence Services
DVSVS is a student-focused, survivor-driven organization dedicated to using education and advocacy to eliminate sexual violence on Catholic campuses.