The Public Performance of Pain

A man stood outside my window, five floors down, shouting at the top of his lungs.

Our apartments wrap around in a u-shape, so when you stand in the carpark, the acoustics are ideal for waking everyone in the whole block.

But this man didn’t wish to wake us all; just one man in particular. He was calling him out, asking him to “come down and fight me ya c**t!”. It was interspersed with references to his teenage daughter: the antagonist believed there’d been some inappropriate behaviour.

The shouting woke me in the small hours, went on for a long time, fell quiet and then started again.

What struck me was the sheer desperation in this man’s voice. His need to settle a score with his adversary, whose real or imagined crimes had afflicted the family.

It’s annoying to be woken from sleep, but it’s also distressing to be in such close proximity to the pain of another.

Since that morning, I’ve been thinking about the public performance of pain.

The man in the carpark played out his pain for all of us. Perhaps it was fueled by alcohol or drugs, perhaps it was an imagined crime; but the pain was real. And I hope that his expression of it was cathartic.

Because most of the pain we feel isn’t ever performed in such a raw way. We often nurse it within us, and express it in unpredictable ways. Sometimes the effort of burying and ignoring that pain is all-consuming. I have watched this happen in front of my eyes, and seen it pull apart the threads of a relationship. Or, like carpark man, pain presents as anger, and pushes away the people who most want to help you.

And when pain is chronic, we warp and bend ourselves around it. When my neck goes out of alignment, my whole body gets twisted. We all know someone where that has happened emotionally.

Sometimes pain becomes so normal, we don’t notice its effect on us. My grandpa used to have chronic back pain, and he would let out little yelps of pain all the time, without even realising it.

I knew I wanted to write about carpark man for a while, but I didn’t know the point of the story. When I talked to my dad about it (co-author of this blog), I realised it’s simple. We all have pain at different times, and it manifests in different ways. Whether physical or emotional, there are many ways we can get hurt.

There is the good pain of a massage, the earned pain of a tough workout. There is pain that teaches you about yourself, pain that shrinks you, or pain that nobody can see but is never far from your mind.

The key is to recognise that it’s universal, that we are all hurt sometimes and that we need to be kind to each other. As buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield says, the definition of compassion is where love meets pain.

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