Sunday, February 13, 2011

Note to my son: Other people's pain

From AdoptionTalk:

Abducted v. Adopted: What's the Difference?

At Huffington Post, Jennifer Lauck, author of Found: A Memoir and Blackbird: A Childhood Lost and Found, asks that question:
Carlina White said she always had a sense she did not belong to the family that raised her. The twenty-three-year-old woman had been abducted in 1987 from a Harlem Hospital when she was nineteen-days-old. White was then raised by her abductor, Ann Pettway. Pettway is now in custody for kidnapping.

What White expresses about her sense of belonging is what I have felt for all the years of my own life -- only I am called adopted versus abducted.

And in the comments section:

Anonymous said... With all due respect, making the decision to sign away the rights to your child are not in any way the same as having a child taken by force as perpetrated in the crime discussed in this article.

Sorry, but second thoughts and regrets are just not the same.

While I may be sympathetic to mothers who felt they had no recourse or faced societal pressures and stigmas, pretending its the same, doesn't make it so.

Dear AwesomeCloud,

Don't ever diminish other people's pain. Not even if you think their pain is unjustified. Not even if you think they're overcomparing it to something much worse than anything they've ever experienced. Not even if your pain is clearly greater than theirs.

Not even if you could out-angst them with one hand tied behind your back, on your birthday, with cake.

Not even if they obviously don't know what they're talking about. Not even if they say, "I know exactly how you feel. My friend got a puppy when it was too young, and it whined a lot and missed its mom for a whole year."

Not even if they say, "I feel terribly, terribly alone in the world, and don't tell me I have a wonderful family, because I still feel terribly, terribly alone in the world."

Let me tell you something about other people's pain: it's annoying. That's right, it's annoying. If you hear somebody complain about how hard it is to be them, and you get annoyed, you're not alone. Everybody does. And it goes both ways: everyone gets annoyed when you talk about your pain, too.

The response to hearing about other people's pain often goes two ways: an urge to try to help them, or an urge to convince them to shut up. Both responses are natural. The urge to help is often practiced by helper-type personalities, and is their kinder, gentler way to get the complainer to shut up. The helper-type believes that a rosier outlook will cheer the complainer up. Sometimes - okay, usually - the complainer isn't willing to be cheered up, and resists all helpful suggestions. The complainer feels un-listened-to and diminished instead of cheered up.

Sometimes you may feel too impatient to help, like the commenter I cited at the beginning, and you'll want to directly diminish the complainer.

Don't do either one of these. Don't get annoyed in the first place. If you find yourself getting annoyed, stop and say to yourself, It's not annoying. It's honest.

That person isn't just a complainer. She's a person with pain.

The pain of alienation is the most common thing in the human race. Everyone feels alienation. Maybe we all shouldn't, but we all do. People who appear to live charmed lives feel alienation. People who make all the friends, get all the money, travel around the world, win all the college scholarships, and make high honors every semester... every one of them feels alienation. So do the people who struggle to make friends, can't hold a job, struggle in school, and rarely leave their houses.

Why does everyone feel alienation? I believe it's a byproduct of empathy. We humans can empathize with each other, but we're not actually empathic with each other. We can guess what other people are thinking and feeling, but we can't actually get into their heads to feel the exact feelings they're feeling. (Some people will tell you they can. They might claim to be empaths. My guess is that they believe exceptionally strongly in their empathetic guesses.) So we feel like we're missing something crucially important about being human - that interconnectedness that we swear we should feel but... we... just... don't.

But there are lots of things in life that will heighten feelings of alienation by piling more alienation onto the original feelings. Things like adoption trauma. Things like being abandoned, ignored, marginalized, or diminished.

People with disabilities feel alienation. Remember that whenever you meet a person with a disability - if you alienate her by treating her poorly, you're just adding more alienation on top of the mounds and mounds of alienation she's already experienced. Even if all your friends treat her poorly; if you do too, you become just one more hurtful jerk in a sea of jerks. You can do better. So can your friends, and you should remind them of that.

People with above-average intelligence feel alienated. So do people with below-average intelligence. So do people with average intelligence if they're in a group of people that can't connect with them. Being of like mind with our companions is extremely important to us humans. Forget that. People who think differently from you are more interesting than people who are just like you. If you can't listen to people who think differently from you, and who experience pain differently from you, you'll never learn why they feel alienated.

Sometimes their thoughts may seem bizarre and convoluted. For instance, the hypothetical kid who compares adoption to a puppy. It's a silly comparison, but it almost makes sense in a certain way: the kid is trying. He's grasping. He's trying to imagine the experience of being abruptly ripped from one home and put in another, and he's never experienced it himself, but he remembers the puppy. Something about the puppy's ordeal struck him, saddened him, enough to make him remember it now.

Yes, it's a stupid thing to say, but it's all the kid has to offer. However, there's something else the kid has, that he's afraid to mention - he has feelings of alienation too. How do you know? Because everyone has them. That kid may not know what it's like to abruptly and involuntarily switch families, but he knows what alienation feels like, and that's why he's trying to connect with you. Perhaps lamely, but he's trying.

The writer of the "Abducted vs. Adopted" post above felt a connection to the woman in the news story. She read the woman's description of her feelings of alienation and said, "Hey, that describes my feelings too!" And why wouldn't it? If she described her feelings of alienation without referring to the abduction article, would anybody be surprised?

We may not want to hear other people describe their feelings of alienation at all. We may find such complaints annoying. That annoyance may come about because we're comparing justifications for other people's pain - whether we feel our pain is more justified or less justified.

But it's not a contest. People shouldn't need to prove their pain is justified before they talk about it. So what if it's silly, or if you don't want to hear it anymore? They're not complaining for your sake. They're not asking you to rate their pain from one to ten. They're not really claiming their pain is really the same as this or that; that adopted people are the same as puppies or abductees.

We humans are always trying to find common threads between us. One common thread is the basic feeling of alienation. The details don't matter.

Well, actually they do matter, but not in any way that makes it appropriate to diminish someone whose pain isn't like yours.

And maybe they'll respond respectfully when you describe your pain. If you ever do. You don't have to if you don't want to.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed reading your take on this. Thanks for writing...