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The Hierarchy of Pain: Where is our humanity?

At the time of writing this article, India is in the merciless and unrelenting grip of the second wave of Covid-19 pandemic. Many states have imposed full or partial lockdowns, as health systems across the country are collapsing under the pressure mounted by the unavailability of oxygen, hospital beds and vaccine supplies. Collectively, India is facing a grave public health crisis; it is a sense of shared suffering that unites us. The pandemic has made us look at, and reassess, matters in a different light, and, it is in the context of the pandemic that a true understanding of one of the most universal and human experiences emerges: the feeling of pain. 

In Albert Camus' The Plague, the protagonist, Dr. Bernard Rieux concludes that love, suffering and a feeling of exile are the only experiences that are truly universal in human existence. When the ability to feel pain and hurt is such a distinct human quality, then, why do we hierarchize pain? Before we proceed, let us acquaint ourselves with what the practise of hierarchizing pain entails. To hierarchize pain is to bluntly state: "My griefs are superior to yours, and vice-versa". To hierarchize pain is to create a pecking order, where an individual's pain is compared with that of another's, and is accordingly examined for its worthiness. As is very evident, this practise is very wrong, and it needs to be done away with.

We have all been in situations where we have felt that the other person's suffering is nothing compared to ours. But, as John Green said: "That's the thing about pain, it demands to be felt". When in pain, the totality of it often gives the impression of it being an unique experience that is limited to the person feeling the pain. However, that is not the case. We must recognize two very important points: First, that everyone is capable of feeling and suffering from pain, and second, that pain can manifest itself in various ways. We are capable of suffering from physical pain, from pain caused by the actions or inactions of others, or from pain caused by incidents and events. Despite the sources of pain being different, the feelings of hurt and grief that they generate are very genuine and real. Many times, the source of our pain is dismissed or simply brushed away as being nothing. Many times we are told: "What you are going through is nothing. Look at X. They are having it much worse than you", or "If you can't face this, what will you face in life?". Such instances occur more often with young people, who are expected to be resilient enough to not be bothered by pain. Even boys and men are expected to face troubling situations without getting flustered by them, and are expected to not acknowledge the pain that the situation might bring them. 

Let's make this very clear: Pain is Pain. That's it. Pain does not discriminate on the basis of age, gender, ethinicity or nationality. If someone is hurt, and if someone says that they are in pain, we do not have the right to dismiss their claims. The pandemic has taught us that the concept of hell is not just abstract or metaphysical. In the past thirteen months or so, we have all gone through a personalized hell, whose horrors are only known entirely to us. No other person, irrespective of how close they might be, will be in a position to completely understand us. The oft-quoted maxim of "Put yourself in the other person's shoes" also does not work, as the individual or collective experience of pain cannot be simulated. In 2020, we witnessed the plight of migrant workers in India, as they collapsed on the way to their homes, on foot, under sweltering heat, from extreme starvation. We also saw images of doctors and nurses collapsing from severe exhaustion, after working long, long hours tending to the Covid-19 afflicted patients. We have heard the agonizing wails of families who had lost their next-of-kin to the virus. We have spent sleepless nights, haunted by the uncertainty of the future. We have heard about the mental, physical and sexual abuse countless women have faced, with their dignity, self-respect and feeling of pain being reduced to a mere statistic.  In 2021, we are staring at yet another long road of such experiences, seemingly without an end. Today, the people in every country are in unspeakable agony for a variety of reasons, the onset of which began with the pandemic. 

The important question is this: How do we shatter this hierarchy of pain? 

Fortunately, there are many things we can do to go about achieving this. To begin with, we need to stop being judgemental. To pass judgements is a very human thing, but the least we can do is to keep those judgements within ourselves. An individual's outward appearance is in no way a reliable indicator of how they are feeling from the inside. Many people are capable of fighting a universe of demons within, all while offering their brightest smile to everyone they meet. We think we know about everything that goes on in another's life; and that's an extremely foolish belief. If we find someone struggling at school, college, workplace, or anywhere for that matter, we must not judge them. No worry is too trivial, no pain is easy to bear. If one is in a position to help, then by all means, offer help. If not, just walking away quietly can also be of huge help. 

It cannot be denied that these are trying times for everyone. Thus, we can make a conscious effort to be more kind and compassionate. Small and random acts of kindness can go a long way in alleviating a person's pain. By lending a sympathetic, listening and non-judgemental ear, by offering a shoulder to cry on, by providing a hand to hold, not only can we effectively break the hierarchy of pain, we can also significantly reduce the effect of pain on the person. 

Finally, we need to fight our own indifference to the suffering of others. We must not spectate others' pain and suffering like a theatrical performance, feeling safe and smug in knowing that it has nothing to do with us. We must not think of their suffering as something that is removed from our daily sphere of existence. As a community, we are one. By legitimating the pain of others, by allowing them to feel the pain without being judged for it, by recognizing that what one is going through can happen to anyone else, we will be in a position create a safe and holistic space for healing and recovery. 

To hierarchize pain is to deny an individual their right to feel human. Now more than ever, we need our humanity. We might be saved from Covid-19, but we cannot be saved from an ailing humanity. 

Always remember: "There are wounds that never show on the body, that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds" - Laurell. K. Hamilton. 

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Tags: Pandemic Covid-19 Loss Empathy Compassion Grief Human Experience Pain Blog Feeling Suffering


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