The problem with subjectivity

I came into my office today to discover my clock wasn’t working. It was broken, likely dropped or knocked off my desk. I immediately blamed the janitor service my hospital uses mainly because they tend to move things around a lot when they clean (and by things I mean everything) and they don’t appear to be to concerned with care in moving the objects any more than they are concerned with putting things back where they were prior to their interaction with it. Also they don’t really appear to “clean” so much as wipe everything down with those disinfectant cloths. So every morning I am greeted by everything in my office having a faint but noticeable film on it. Oh and did I mention they have broken other things in my office, and everyone else’s office in the past?

So I am quite comfortable blaming the janitor service for my broken clock.

Really this post is not about the clock, but as you may have guessed (if you have read my other non-poetry posts) the clock is a symbol, but the symbol is also not what this post is about.

In this case the clock is a symbol of my pain. That is what this post is about my pain, or put another way my (and by extension all of our) subjective experience of my pain.

I have been dealing with a back issue most of my life. I won’t bore you with the details but the result is periodically I have pain in parts of my back that make even breathing difficult when it gets really bad and uncomfortable almost all of the rest of the time. The past three weeks my back has been out to get me in a way it never has before. I can’t even sleep because every time I move the pain wakes me up.

I have been able to use all my my super powers of psychology (as one of my sons once referred to them as) to remain focused on my patients while they are in front of me but the rest of the time I can think of little else.

So the past month I have been practicing yoga and new stretches and old stretches and taking ibuprofen and acetaminophen way more often, and waiting. Ultimately back pain for me is about taking it easy, doing what I can, and waiting. Eventually this too shall pass.

And it is getting better. Thank you for asking.

About two weeks ago, when my pain was at its worse (even moving my foot from accelerator to brake while driving was excruciating) I was contacted by an old patient who’s son had recently died. Of course I can’t go into any of the details but let me just say nothing about the circumstances of this young person’s death was not a gut wrenching tragedy.

I have been mulling over how to write about this (because I think it is important) since the beginning of our journey together and today when I realized my clock was broken I realized how to do so.

Do any reading about pain in the hallowed halls of psychology and you will inevitably come across the phrase, “pain is subjective.” What that means in egghead terms is that everyone perceives pain (and really all of their life experience) through a personal and unique perspective–their own. Everyone when confronted by an event (say noticing their back hurts) will understand not only the specific event they are experiencing but all other events I that category of events from their unique personal experience of the event.

Put another (and less eggheady) way: everyone believes their pain is the most painful pain there can possibly be and while you may also experience pain your pain is not as painful as my pain.

Subjectivity simply means one’s personal perspective or understanding of, well anything really.

Maybe I should write something about the subjective nature of reality?…….(comment if you agree)

Anyway, so here I am suffering the most miserably excruciating form of pain, back pain, and obviously my back pain is the pinnacle or dare I say archetypal expression of pain when I get the call.

My former patient is in crisis and needs to talk immediately if it sooner.

Suddenly all my back pain seems rather unimportant doesn’t it?

That friends and neighbors is called perspective. I, thanks to my patient, have a new and safe I say better, perspective.

Yes my back still hurts but no my inability to lay, sit, or stand in one position for too long is not the most discomfort a person can be in. Not by a mile.

Now I can hear the mutterings out there, that I am comparing apples to oranges, but that is just the point I am trying to make.

When you experience something which for whatever reason is overwhelming the natural human tendency is to believe your situation is as big as a situation can be. That is what being overwhelmed does, it distorts proportion. And no my point isn’t to tell you that it could always be worse though that is true, because that not only is dismissive of the pain you may be experiencing but it is rather disrespectful to you and your situation.

No my point is this: be kind to one another.

As the old saying goes “everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” That person who was short with you in the store or that waiter that got your order wrong may be in excruciating physical or emotional pain such that he or she doesn’t know how they will carry on.

Maybe your back hurts so much you haven’t had more than an hour sleep at a time for weeks but that person who bumped you with their shopping cart just lost a son or their mother or has just found out the blemish on the X-ray is cancer.

Maybe your pain is the worst you have ever experienced but that person who just cut you off in traffic is experiencing a pain you cannot even imagine. Or one you refuse to imagine.

There is a wonderful song I found during the pandemic lockdown that I have often printed out and handed to people, coworkers and patients alike. It’s called “work hard and be nice” and is by Michael Franti & Spearhead. There is also a book I have not read called “work hard and be nice to people” by Anthony Burrill.

I don’t know about the book, it could be just a title, but the song is about understanding everyone is going through something and you being nice is a choice everyone will appreciate.

Does that mean your pain doesn’t count? No, of course not. But maybe you aren’t the only one who is in pain and a small amount of kindness, or forgiveness, or grace, or whatever you want to call it would be helpful.

The Buddha said that to complain about your pain is like doubling your pain, “Of you are shot with an arrow and chose to complain about being shot, your pain doubles as if you were shot by a second arrow.” Maybe your pain will be doubled by dismissing someone else’s pain in a similar way.

Enough babbling from me on this but please consider being nice to people, even when you are hurting. To do so not only honors your pain but theirs as well.

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