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The Horror

August 19, 2011

Last month, I wrote an essay about explaining war to my kids using as an example the newly established Republic of South Sudan and why I care about it. The piece was picked up by the Dallas Morning News Opinion Blog (yay) but I’m still wondering”

Why does this affect me so deeply?

I’m just finished a second reading of King Leopold’s Ghost, Adam Hothchild’s amazing history of the Belgian invasion of the Congo river basin and subsequent enslavement of the people who lived there. According to the book, under Belgian rule, the Congolese population was halved in a matter of decades and the reign of terror unleashed by the colonizers is still wreaking havoc.

I had read the book once before, when it first came out in the early years of my marriage; I read it as a history book. I found it fascinating, but I didn’t have the same visceral reaction as I did with my second reading. The first time I read about this atrocity, my (selfish) reaction was one of “How horrible of the Europeans!” This time around, my reaction can be condensed into “How horrible for the Congolese!”

I re-read books all the time. It’s not unusual for me to find new ways of reading a piece of literature, or history, or philosophy, or a cookbook the second, third, or twentieth reading. But I don’t even recognize the person who read that book a decade ago. It’s as if I’m a whole new me.

I am.

Not a whole new me; more like a less-than-whole new me.

I don’t know whether it’s maturity, aka getting older, or having had children, or having had cancer, but the new less-whole me is a whole lot less detached than I used to be.

“You can’t imagine it unless you’ve been there.”

Those words are a line from Watership Down, Richard Adam’s midcentury novel about rabbits, and about freedom and totalitarianism, to describe the what it was like in Efrafa, a rabbit warren run like an Eastern-Bloc gestapo state. The words sing through my mind’s ear like a refrain at the most inopportune times: when a well-wisher gushes at me, “I can imagine what you’ve been through,” citing her own experience with early-stage breast cancer, or her mother’s, or her grandmother’s. The words whisper in my year when I think about a mother who has lost a child: my neighbor,  my friend’s friend, my own friend. The words remind me to be sensitive when I ask my friend whose son is sitting in a federal prison cell, reminding me to ask, but not to pry. They shriek to a fevered pitch as I drive by a homeless person sleeping on a cardboard box in a shaded corner of the street. I know that there are some experiences that must be endured to be understood. Other people’s pain has moved from being an unknown unknown” to become a known one.

I know I cannot feel it.

But I can acknowledge it, because I have felt my own.

I get it.

I’m not one of those horribly earnest people who thinks that pain is good. I hate pain. At the first sign of a headache, I head straight for the bottle of aspirin, and if it doesn’t work, I have a medicine cabinet full of every kind of painkiller you can imagine. It’s the silver lining of cancer, and, for all those people who immediately go to the bad place and assume I have a painkiller dependency, I don’t; most of my narcotics are past their expiration date, and 95% of the reason I still have them is because I don’t know what to do with them. The other five percent is that I might have a really bad headache some day.

Pain lowers your immune response. It makes you cranky. It makes your body release stress hormones, including an adrenal hormone called cortisol that stresses your heart and makes stink and makes you fat. My friend, whose grandmother is fading into Alzheimer’s, told me about a study in which the researchers targeted untreated pain as a possible cause of dementia. My friend is one of those people who don’t vaccinate their children, so I am inclined to take anything she says about  modern medicine with a cup of salt, but she also wise in many ways that don’t involve vaccination, and it certainly makes sense to me that pain would be a factor in anyone’s cognitive dysfunction.

Pain is bad.

Or is it?

I think of John McCain, who endured torture as  a PoW in Viet Nam and now stands as a staunch opponent of torture methods practiced by the United States. His experiences lend him more than gravitas or credibility. His experiences shape his compassion, I believe, even though we don’t know what kind of man he would have become had he not been imprisoned and tortured by the North Vietnamese.

I think of my friend Monica, whose priceless gift to me during my illness was her empathy. Monica hadn’t had cancer herself. Her mother hadn’t had it, nor her father. Yet she completely, totally, and utterly “got it,” because she had been through her own private hell, the hell of infertility.  No one else in my circle of friends understood the horror of your own body’s betrayal, but she did, and her friendship helped create a bridge for me out of my own hell.

I think the medievals got it. Suffering begets compassion. Not in everyone responds this way, surely. For some people, suffering twists the psyche, and for others, it deepens it. We’re not cookie cutter images of each other, but as different as we are from one another, no one seeks out pain. Instead, in our culture, we seek an escape from it. We dull the pain of childbirth through a variety of drugs and procedures. We numb the pain of dental work, of setting broken bones, even a headache, backache, stomach ache, psyche-ache has a remedy, one that really works to block the pain lest we suffer. And that’s not a bad thing, not at all, but I can’t shake away the feeling that we’ve lost something precious.

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  1. Aunt Lee permalink

    Your mother and father have had several encounters with deep pain, when their son almost died and when their daughter almost died.

    Everyone hits their own encounter with deep pain. Sometimes it is physical, sometimes it is emotional. By blunting pain with nostrums, we are left unprepared when it hits. But, but, but there are very good properties in aspirin, morphine, lithium, etc. We are able to go on less crippled than those in the past. Not better, just less crippled.

    I agree with you that there are no easy answers here. Worth years of thought.

    • Mary Knapp permalink

      That’s very true, Lee. But we only stepped up to the door of losing a child and looked through at the unbearable pain. Thanks to God, we haven’t had to step through, and therefore have only glimpsed, but still can’t imagine, the horror.

  2. Aunt Lee permalink

    CONGRATULATIONS on the pick-up by the Dallas Morning News opinion blog. Well done.

  3. The natural childbirth literature differentiates between pain and suffering. That one can experience pain, understand and manage it, but not necessarily suffer. Of course, this approach may only apply to childbearing, because I am hard pressed to think of another kind of pain which brings such a tangibly awesome outcome.

    Anyway, just thought I’d mention it.

    Extremely articulate post. You’re a little bit brilliant, and it’s a pleasure to read your thoughts.

    • Mary Knapp permalink

      That’s an accurate distinction, Jaye. After four natural births, I realize that pain that is an indicator of injury or damage is less endurable than pain that is an indicator of an intense process….and the outcome, as you indicate, is tangibly awesome — as witnessed by this blog.

  4. I cannot write anything brilliant and I believe I, as lots of women, have a high threshold for physical pain. I, on the other hand, cannot tell you the 7yrs of emotional pain I experienced watching my only child’s journey through stage 4 colon cancer. She should not have lasted that long by all accounts. What made the physical pain she endured and the emotional pain I endured sustainable was how God used this and made something good out of my losing her. HE walked through the fire with us, used her, and that made all the difference. I mostly know the loss her children still feel and knowing her grandchildren will never know her is now my source of pain for lack of a better word.

    Congratulations on the Dallas paper recognizing good writing when they see it.

    I have always wished I had the gift to express myself with words on paper or even in speech,
    but that does not keep me from appreciating those that do..

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