Our Private and Public Pain
If there’s one thing most of us know about the human experience, it’s this: the difficulty of delivering on one state of being while in the throes of a very different state of being. A common example would be when one is sick, but a paper or other project is due and no extensions on the deadline are allowed. Or you have allergies or cramps but must put on your game face and uncomfortable shoes and be the very model of professional comportment All. Day. Long. Perhaps the worst is when your heart is broken, but you need to keep on keeping on, often without anyone else knowing what you’re going through.
A Certain Amount of Denial
It’s a minimalism, of sorts, when you think about it. You find a way to shrink the amount of space your personal reality takes up in your head in order to attend to something larger than yourself, or at least more important in the larger scheme of things than your pain.
Part of being properly socialized is learning to take the focus off ourselves and hopefully place it on our role in the world. However, even to this day, the expectation of acceptable behavior is all too often matched by the expectation of acceptable thought; people feel coerced to deny to themselves that they are unhappy, frustrated, in pain, or even hungry. Even after social changes made “finding oneself” in its various forms acceptable, far too many people still can’t maintain a comfortable balance between their public and private selves: mindlessly doing what we’re expected to do is not the same as choosing to act differently than we feel with a desirable end goal in mind. Self-denial in this sense contradicts the pursuit of happiness.
Denying the expression of our personal pain can turn into denying that there might be a larger problem. This is how oppression gains a foothold, whether in a relationship, in a workplace, or in a nation. Then expressing our pain itself becomes part of our role in the world, speaking out against the imbalance of good and bad, not only for ourselves, but for our children and our neighbors. Fighting for civil rights is one form of this.
We keep on keeping on, persevering through the hard times, the bad luck, hoping that if we can just keep it together long enough, we’ll be able to say the happy days are, indeed, here again. We tell ourselves, “this, too, shall pass.” And it will, because nothing stays the same. Yes, it often gets worse, and yes, it is universally terminal: ’tis the human condition. We’re grownups now, we can edit our behavior, we can choose not to whine or wallow. We can get tough, duke it out, right?
But social contracts are meant to work both ways: you agree to provide this and that for me, and I agree to provide this and that for you. Boundaries, both stated and unstated, prevent either one of us from taking unfair or abusive advantage of one another. As an obvious example, when women are considered as little more than their husbands’ property, they are expected to do as told, whether they like it or not, even if it is abusive. When women have rights, they can decide (hopefully with their husbands) what they will and will not do or tolerate, and have a reasonable expectation of not getting beaten to death for their preferences. If there’s no agreement on the preferences, then the social contract can be amended or dissolved.
When times are tough, as in a war or disaster, people band together to provide the services and support that is needed, and somehow know it is good to “keep calm and carry on.” A lot of personal pain is felt, but individuals know that other individuals have similar pain, and there is an understanding that the larger good takes precedence. But what if the tough times are more subtle, and go on and on and on? Does the choice to persevere gradually become denial that there’s a choice?
Is the spirit to publicly acknowledge our pain lost in the face of watching, for instance, an old lady–peacefully protesting against the pain caused by a few corporate oligarchs’ death grip on the government and the economy–get a blast of pepper spray from a cop?
Social contracts fail when they slide from mutually beneficial arrangements into owner-subordinate relationships in which the subordinate has little or no recourse for either expressing or removing pain, much like an abused married woman with no rights. No recourse, that is, unless those toughing it out in private let one another know, and the public pain becomes legion.