Thursday, June 30, 2011


Last week-end la cocotte and I were doing some shopping at a baby accessory store. Well she was more shoplifting than shopping. As we were leaving I noticed she had lifted one of the ugly baby dolls that was being used to demonstrate the change table. La cocotte toddled full speed towards the exit as if she would be home free if she could just get out the door with her baby. I caught her, "convinced" her to give up the baby and hustled her out the door. She wailed. And wailed. And wailed. It was clear that her little cocotte heart was breaking. At first I was impatient and annoyed with and by the fuss. Then it occurred to me that relatively speaking, the abrupt withdrawal of her baby was probably as painful to her as it would be to me if someone 5 times my size plucked la cocotte out of my arms with an abrupt: "sorry, you'll have to leave this behind."

This concept of the relativeness of experience is something I have been wrestling with for awhile. Do people experience their disappointments, pain and grief on a relative scale or are they experienced in absolute terms? Let me put this into more concrete terms... imagine a person who leads an extremely charmed and fortunate life in terms of health, wealth, circumstances etc.. This person, who has never experienced what most people would consider to be true hardship, might experience an event like breaking an arm as a true tragedy because in their framework i.e. relative to their daily experience, it is. Now think of a person is heartbreaking circumstances, let me use an example from a poignant book I have been reading lately about NGOs in Afghanistan, picture a women who has been thrown in jail for having "committed the crime" of being raped. Not only is she put in jail, but her children are put in jail with her and held, for years, without any kind of recourse. Could it be that the pain in these two cases is actually experienced in the same way due to the relative circumstances of the two people?

Relativism is a theme that comes up in many discussions. Cultural relativity is often used to make the [ridiculous] argument that certain actions, although reprehensible and heinous by our cultutal standards, are acceptable in other cultures and they should be judged within the cultural context in which they occur. So that although in our culture it is unacceptable to perform female castration or throw women in jail with their children because they were raped, within the cultural context in which they occur these are acceptable and behaviors and practices cannot be viewed in absolute terms. Bullshit I say. There are certain things that can be deemed to be absolutely morally WRONG regardless of the cultural context in which they occur.

But back to the relativity of human pain. How do people experience pain? Is it with an awareness of the absolute range of human experience or is it strictly within the context of what they themselves have experienced? I guess I struggle with this because I often get frustrated even angry with myself for being upset by the small things that go awry in my life when overall I really do have a charmed and fortunate existence. Like, for example, how can I allow myself to be so sad when every month I am NOT pregnant when I have an amazing, happy, healthy toddler whom I love and so many other things that enrich my life? How can I sometimes lose myself in this pain? I am so incredibly lucky and there are so many people who are truly in pain, it feels almost shameful to allow myself room for this pain. But I guess it is human... it is human to allow the pain in but perhaps healthy to always try to maintain a sense of perspective or in other words some kind of balance between the absolute and the relative.

I started reading blogs in the infertility community i.e. the blogs of women who were struggling with fertility issues as they tried to conceive. I read those blogs back when we were struggling to conceive la cocotte. I was often amazed by the warmth, support and humanity I found in the network of these blogs... on the other hand there was also somewhat an element of: no one is allowed to complain but us. I came across many bitter tirades against co-workers, family members, friends etc. of these women who would make the unforgiveable mistake of complaining about how exhausted they were as a result of caring for their children and the message I often found was loud and clear - no one who has conceived has the right to complain about their children or pregnancies after all the hardship I have been through. Which is kind of silly... just because I am having trouble conceiving doesn't make my colleague who has three children any less exhausted after being up for many hours at night with his children... it doesn't make my colleague who recently announced she is pregnant after trying exactly ONCE have any less morning sickness and, besides, all of these problems... not being able to conceive, exhaustion, nausea pale in comparison to the suffering of most.

But I don't mean to make this about infertility or conception, those are just examples. Where am I going with all of this? Not really sure. Just stuff I have been chewing on for awhile. I guess ultimately I think it is human to feel. Human to lose oneself a little in one's own experience and emotions relative to the context of one's own life. It is healthier and perhaps wiser to try to put one's pain in a larger context.


  1. I like this post, particularly where you come around to the last few sentences...I agree with you on some of the infertility posts (re warmth and sympathy but resentment of others who have it easier; it is a bitter burden to carry so much resentment though)...I wish things were going better for you though (can you get any tests done just to get an idea of what is going on?)...anyway, like you say, it is often hard to step outside our little sphere and look at the big picture or other's struggles...

  2. I've struggled with relative scales of pain, with doctors asking for a 1-10 rating of pain, compared to the worst I've felt. My 2 is beyond
    most people's 10. I've passed a kidney stone, which most consider horribly painful and it's a 3 or 4. I've chiseled an impacted tooth out of my own jaw (don't ask) and that was a 7. Emergency rooms debate whether I'm seeking drugs because morphine at a level that's just short of putting me on a respirator has little effect.

    So, when asked, do I calmly say "10" no matter what? Or do I say "4" and have them ignore me for two hours, as it's not serious?

    I'm constantly baffled by the comment "That's the hardest thing I've ever done." I watched Christina Aguilera decide between two singers and said it was the hardest decision she ever made - really? - I've had to decide when and how people I loved would die. Lance Armstrong said running a marathon was the hardest thing he'd ever done - really? harder than training for the Tour de France while taking chemotherapy?!

  3. btw, there was no reason for my posting a picture of a slow loris, except that I thought a photo would look nice there... and they're cute. I'm not sure what kind of animal they are, really, marsupial?, but they're only as big as your thumb and most photos of them are adorable.