The pain of the world threads itself through me

I read Jo’s gorgeous post, Everything Under the Gaping-Mouth Moon with a wince of recognition.  She writes – beautifully, as ever – about the dissonance she experiences between her own “singalong life” and the horrors that she knows are out there in the world.  “While children starve in North Korea, I barter with mine about dessert,” she writes, and I both smile and grimace, knowing the squeaking, nails-on-chalkboard feeling that putting two realities like that next to each other can generate.

Jo goes on to talk about how gratitude can be an antidote to the world’s suffering, about realizing that embracing joy, even in the full knowledge that out there is an ocean of sorrow, is not a bad thing.  In fact, it could be a good and generative and healing thing.  I love her points and highly recommend her post – Jo’s blog in general, actually.

As her writing often does, Jo’s words made me pensive.  I went off on a slightly different direction, though.  I can’t stop thinking about the ways in which my piercing awareness of the pain in the world – writ large and writ small – threads itself through my everyday life.  I regularly find myself keening – literally, wailing, internally if not externally – over the hurt in the world.  One day, driving through Harvard Square, stopped at a red light, Whit pointed to the man with the tattered cardboard sign begging from the stopped cars and asked, “Where’s his mummy?”  That made me cry so hard I had to pull over.  I can’t quite elucidate yet how devastated I am by homelessness; it’s a combination of guilt at my own comfort and despair about a society that abandons those who need it most.  I don’t read the paper anymore – some of that is from sheer laziness, sure, but it’s also because I simply can’t take the litany of news about deaths, despotic rulers, and economies in free fall.

This functions in a variety of ways.  Because of my porous nature, I’m easily hurt and saddened by what I witness, in my small world and in the larger one.  It also makes me, sometimes, awfully maudlin, even morbid.  This past weekend, sitting at a kitchen table at the Lost Island in New Hampshire with two of my very dearest friends, I descended into conversation about how the axe is hanging over our heads and it’s just a question of when.  Someone is going to get sick.  Someone is going to die.  Who will it be?  I’ve observed before that I have far more funerals ahead of me than behind me.  I’ve also been through enough severe illnesses, of parents and close friends, to know what that does to you.  And I ought to be more grateful, every single day, for the pulse of life that beats through me and my healthy friends and family.

And somehow I can’t.  I seesaw wildly between gratitude so intense it brings me to my knees, eyes full of tears, and crushing guilt at my own nonchalance about my good fortune.  I can’t believe I’m not more thankful, not more aware of the extraordinary good fortune of every single day that I – and, more importantly, so do my best friends and my family – get to be alive and healthy.  My existence is an odd combination of twinned grief and gratitude and overwhelming foreboding of bad things to come.  I know there is bad news on the horizon – there must be.  I also know that I ought to ignore it, and dance in the sunlight while it’s here.  And sometimes, truly, I can.  But not always, and in those moments I’m completely paralyzed by a simultaneous fear of those clouds and horror that I’m not appreciating the now better.

As one of my favorite, truly favorite bloggers, Kate at sweet/salty, put it: “Life is pain punctuated by joy.”  I hate being negative, I fight the creep of cynicism, and daily I wish I had more wonder in my life.  Still, I think she might be right.  There is so much damn rain in this world.  And, as I’ve realized, the more people you love, and the more deeply you feel, the more rain you get.  There’s no question about that equation.  Still, I’d never do it differently.  I wouldn’t trade my life for one with shallower feelings or one protected from the threat that I know clouds every moment.  Like my dear, beloved Jo, I sometimes want to pound my fists on the steering wheel, I squeeze my eyes closed to hold back the torrent of tears, and I rail against my own ingratitude.  Still, I know: this is life.  Radiance and shadow.  Turning, turning.

20 thoughts on “The pain of the world threads itself through me”

  1. Have you ever read anything about highly sensitive people? When I came across that term 10 or so years ago, it immediately helped me make sense of a part of myself.

  2. I tried to pull out a few of the sentences that struck me most, but gave up when I realized I’d be copying 90% of this post in the comments section. 🙂
    I seesaw just as wildly between gratitude and guilt–between joy in the moment and fear of the inevitable pain and loss. As always, I appreciate what you write, as in identifying with it, I feel so much less alone in the struggle.

  3. And because you feel so deeply, you’ll take more away from your experiences in this world. I’ve found, too, that life is lots of ups and downs. That’s just the way it is, and it’s how we “weather” them that makes a difference in our outlook…great post!

  4. I read Jo’s post yesterday and was so taken by her words, recognizing myself in her eloquent words. Like you, I live within the same conflict, and it used to weigh me down. I still struggle, feeling guilt at my good fortune while horrific things happen everywhere. But, like you, I now try to soak up the sun when it shines. Because the rain, as you say, does come. And the lurking shadows, they’re always there, whenever the sun shines…

    (And Whit, asking where the homeless man’s mummy was? Gasp.) xo

  5. All I can do is nod my head vigorously. When so much of your heart is devoted to compassion and care, it becomes hard to not simultaneously fear that you’ll become heart-hardened at the same time, simply out of self-protection. But I don’t think that it will happen to you. I don’t know you well at all, and I’ve only started reading your blog, but I think that you’ll always love big. And that will hurt, but we need more of that in this world; we really do.

  6. I relate to everything you’ve written here, too. Or, rather, this describes the pre-therapy me to a tee. This may not relate to you whatsoever, but speaking for myself, the suffering that I felt so acutely for so many years and the tenacious commitment I had to honor the suffering of everyone by never walking lightly: for me, these turned out, in hindsight, to be my way of grieving my *own* griefs that I hadn’t ever named or properly grieved. The more that I dove into my own darkness, named the things about my life that enraged and perplexed me, acknowledged how intensely I had always wished my dearest family members could be relieved of their anxiety and depression – how helpless and despairing it had made me feel to be unable to give them such relief: the more I did this kind of inner work, the less porous I felt for the suffering of the world “out there”. It was a really weird, and often counter-intuitive, process. And I’m wondering whether you’re in the middle of this kind of process too.

  7. Im with you (and Kristen, and many of your readers) on this. It reminded me of being a very little kid in my parents’ car and crying because a homeless man was limping across the road in front of us. I remember my parents laughing at me (and me thinking how much they did not understand). They thought I needed to be tougher, I think they needed to be tough enough to care.

    Sometimes I really think that we’re not just projecting to imagine that those who suffer are the very parts of ourselves who suffer—and those who connect, care, love and really live are also the parts of us who have that aspect of our collective experience. As for the big picture, maybe none of us can individually have it, but together we find an expanding understanding of our true Selves.


  8. I loved Jo’s post and yours. I also feel the weight of the world on my shoulders because I am sensitive like you. Many see it as a weakness but I don’t let that get to me. I feel like there is always more that we can do to contribute to the society of those left behind. That’s always been one of my passions. I love your words today- thank you.

  9. Hello dear Lindsey,

    I’ve also grappled with despair over the suffering in the world, and I’ve found so much solace in the words of Helen Keller,

    “Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it. My optimism, then, does not rest on the absence of evil, but on a glad belief in the preponderance of good and a willing effort always to cooperate with the good, that it may prevail.”

    So we try to alleviate suffering where we see it. My young son and I create “backpacks for the homeless” and fill them with warm socks, a blanket, granola bars and a bottle of water. It’s a simple thing to do, but the look between my son and the person with whom we are connecting is worth so much.

    Big love to you and your readers, Lindsey!

  10. I could’ve written this (although not quite as eloquently).

    It’s like this, no?:

    God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
    then walks with us silently out of the night.

    These are the words we dimly hear:

    You, sent out beyond your recall,
    go to the limits of your longing.
    Embody me.

    Flare up like flame
    and make big shadows I can move in.

    Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
    Just keep going. No feeling is final.
    Don’t let yourself lose me.

    Nearby is the country they call life.
    You will know it by its seriousness.

    Give me your hand.

    – Rilke

  11. So much of this I feel in my heart. I understand what you are saying, more after witnessing the illnesses of those who have been close to me and their passing. Experiencing these events, it heightens everything I feel, especially the ordinary.

  12. This was so beautifully written. I just watched “Whore’s Glory” on Netflix and was moved to such tremendous tears and feeling of pain. Why do so many have to suffer for others to enjoy life?

    Your post is basically how I’ve felt all my life and I’m glad your readers have some resources to learn more about sensitive people.

    I just feel so hopeless about humanity–I can’t give the whole world a hug. What is there to do but express gratitude?

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