Saturday, August 27, 2011

Fear And Pain

". . . imagine a stone as big a great house; it hangs and you are under it; if it falls on you, on your head, will it hurt you?"

"A stone as big as a house? Of course it would be fearful."

"I speak not of fear. Will it hurt?"

"A stone as big as a mountain, weighing millions of tons? Of course it wouldn't hurt."

"But really stand there and while it hangs you will fear very much that it will hurt. The most learned man, the greatest doctor, all, all will be very much frightened. Everyone will know that it won't hurt, and everyone will be afraid that it will hurt."

~Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Possessed 

Parents spend a lot of energy worrying about pain. I know I do, although as my daughter has grown, my concerns have shifted more toward the emotional than physical. When she was little and pricked her finger, I would fuss over her, joining her in her pain. But now that she's a young woman my responses are less empathetic, more sympathetic, eliciting perhaps a grimace and a "That must have hurt" before returning my attentions to my own concerns. Somehow, I suppose, with all the experience she now has with minor pinches and scrapes it doesn't seem like she needs me to travel through the pain with her, if she ever did. I tend these days to spend more of my time under the "stone as big as a great house" anticipating by proxy the pain of rejection, of cruel words, of dreams being dashed.

I love this Dostoyevsky thought experiment because it makes very clear that most of us, most of the time, no matter how well educated, are even more afraid of pain than death. I can only speak for myself, of course, but I assume I'm not alone in having more or less successfully wrestled the horrific thought of my own child's death into a back closet of my mind where it sits like disaster emergency supplies, necessary, occasionally checked on, but with the expectation of never having to open them. That's a harder thing to do with pain, or more precisely, the fear of pain.

A certain amount of this fear is adaptive. Not enough and we take crazy risks, too much and we become paralyzed. But none of us can avoid pain, and indeed there are philosophers who assert that we all experience an equal share throughout our lives no matter how we live. In any event, there is no denying that pain is one of the universal truths about life. The difference is in how we anticipate it and how we recover from it.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could always be rational about pain; we could look at the wasp buzzing over our food and understand that the pain from its stinger would not be so bad after all, a prick really, perhaps raising a round, red welt. Instead we leap from the table, swinging our napkins, knocking over glassware, even the bravest among us dodging our entire giant bodies in fear of this tiny, harmless insect that really has no intention at all of stinging anything. It's fear that does it; anticipation of pain.

If you look very carefully at this photo, right in the center you'll see the strange insect that
 crawled from a tree round that we'd just had delivered to the school. It appeared to be
some sort of hornet, with a long, thick stinger. As insignificant as it looks here it was
fearsome enough in the moment to occupy the full attention of 3 adults for at least
10 minutes as we cautiously tried to figure out what to do with it. We named it the
 "Snohomish County Hornet" (because that's where the tree had been cut). I finally
trapped it in a cup, carried it up the road and released it into some trees.

And take a look at it from a child's perspective, especially one who has never experienced a sting. We might even be laughing as we do it (in fact, more often than not we are), but this is a table full of big, strong adults fleeing a wasp. How fearsome that must make this wasp to a child. How great that pain must be. Often in these circumstances, the adults are laughing while the children's faces are creased in worry.

I know this is an extreme example, a lot of us have genuine phobias about stinging insects (no doubt sourced in large measure from scenes like the one I've described) and do a much better job of hiding our knee-jerk fears behind a curtain of rational calmness in other circumstances. But it's a good thing as parents to constantly examine our knee-jerk fears, to look at them in moments of repose for the truth. We can all, if we let our imaginations go, come up with a catastrophic possibility for everything, but that's a dangerous, damaging exercise for both you and your child. More productive is to be honest about your fear. Where does it genuinely touch reality? Does the intensity of my fear match the actual pain or is my heart irrationally racing over my child who is about to learn the universal lesson of touching the wrong end of a thumb tack?

Pain is inevitable, and in fact good, in that it is one of nature's great teachers. Through diligence and care, I'm sure we can avoid some of it, but we'll never even come close to eliminating it. And fear is often the worst part of pain; it intensifies it, it turns it into a phobia.

There is no magic way to turn off our fears, I'm afraid, especially when it comes to our children. But we can become aware of them, to talk about them, to examine them in the bright light of day. As parents, perhaps the hardest thing is to learn to feel our fears, to put them on our shoulders, and yet still allow our children to live their lives, which includes, magnificently, both love and pain. The alternative is to keep them in their rooms, quietly, alone, where they learn nothing.

I'm still afraid for the pain my teenager might experience each time she goes out into the world; catches the bus to visit a friend, heads downtown to go shopping, leaves for an afternoon at the beach. The world is full of small things she could choke on, pointy bits upon which she could be cut, and pavement upon which she could fall. Even as I write that sentence, I see the silliness of the fears I once had for my child and wonder when the fears I have now will look just as silly.

As parents, our fear of pain is complicated by the fact that it is a fear by proxy. We see our innocent toddler reaching for the rose. We feel a flash of fear on behalf of our child, who will know the pain, but not the fear, at least not this time. And even once your child has learned the truth about thorns, he will never fear them as much as you did, until he has a child of his own.

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Lisa said...

As you obviously know, a great way to assuage your fears is to learn more about the thing that you are afraid of. For the bug-phobic among us, I think that is a great resource. You can post your bug picture and get an id on your bug (taking photos from multiple angles, and using the macro setting on your camera will help). My guess, from having taken entomology in college 10 years ago, is that if your bug has a visible "stinger" it was probably an ovipositor not a stinger. I really don't know, but it looks like it could possibly be a parasitic wasp in the family Ichneumonidae.

Teacher Tom said...

Thanks Lisa! I told those guys I didn't think it was a stinger, but they convinced me ("That's as big as a 5 gauge needle!") otherwise. Sadly, I can't take better photos because all I use it my phone. =(

Cindy said...

I read your blog as a preschool teacher, but this entry reached me as a parent. My son is on the cusp of adolescence, and I have been struggling with fear of what may await him in middle school -- rejection, betrayal, the loss of his absolute belief that he is "awesome"... Reading such a perfect description of my fears has helped me feel less alone and reminded me of what I already knew -- his pain will not be as bad as my fear, he will survive it as I did, and he will be better for it. I can't say that I don't still want to go fight his enemies and clear his path, but I will return to this post to keep my perspective. Thank you!

Aunt Annie said...

Great post. Thanks.

I'm reminded of a time when I was on school camp with a group of 13-year-old girls, and the challenge was to leap out across a gorge on a flying fox. I can't think of anything I'd rather avoid; I'm really bad about jumping off heights- can't jump off the wharf into our own dam, even! But the realisation that I'd spread my fear to the kids was enough to make me take a deep breath and just GO. And I think that's what we have to do with all these fears- think of the kids, and just GO.

Males in Early Childhood said...

I think much of our fears for our children are generated from the experiences we encountered when we were young. We don't want them to make the same mistakes we made or get gurt the way we did. Also, the perception that society itself is more dangerous feeds on those fears. It's hard to let go & enable your own flesh & blood to go inti the big wide word & take the risks they need to take in order to grow & develop as an individual.

I know this, but my knowing & my doing can often be removed from one another. I think seeing things like this from a parental perspective helps me to iunderstand how parents are thinking & feeling at work. At least I hope so.

Long live open risk taking.

The Knitty Gritty Homestead said...

I too read this as a teacher, then as a parent. My son is starting Grade One...we were blessed to raise him at home until he started Kindergarten, and I got to be his teacher! It hit me yesterday that he will soon spend more time at school than at home; for the first time in his life, his days will be spent away from me and his sisters. I worry about his social skills. I worry that his teacher won't help him understand what he needs to do (he has a language learning delay). I worry that his artistic spirit will be squandered in the name of "learning"...sigh.
Thank you for reminding me to choose love over fear. Because, really, that's the only choice there is.

Kate said...

How funny, we have rose bushes in our front yard and just today my son (14 months) was reaching for one and I wanted to snatch him away! I decided not to intervene and it turned out he didn't end up going for it, I guess we'll see what happens next time, but I think maybe I will just let him grab it... who knows!
I am also INCREDIBLY INCREDIBLY afraid of flying insects. We were at the pool last weekend and one was hovering around, I was so panicked when it was around me but tried so hard not to show that fear to my son, I only intervened when it was under his bottom and he could of sat down on it.