I saw a friend this week who has had a particularly difficult five or six years, struggling with mental health challenges, the dissolution of her marriage, and the subsequent fight for access to her children. Of course, if you’d been walking along and come across us, you’d know none of this. You’d just see her in this moment, for the person she is. You might make judgements about her based on her appearance or demeanour. But you know nothing of her secret pain.
They say what you don’t know can’t hurt you. But what you don’t know can certainly hurt someone else. Every day we meet people and know nothing of their circumstances. We make assumptions about them, widen the gap between us, resist connection. The guy who stole my parking place in the car park, the lady who rang up my groceries, the lifeguard pacing back and forth at the swimming pool: we all have our secret pain. Grief, sadness, pain, loss, despondence, despair, fear—each person carries around a little backpack of experiences and feelings. I’ve got one; you’ve got one. It’s easy for me to ignore it and just get on with my life. Maybe disconnection seems easier. But we know that disconnection breeds comparison, dislike, indifference, even hatred.
It’s so easy to think only of my own backpack, or those of my close friends. After all, its weight can be so consuming I can hardly think of anything else. But we’ve all got that backpack, whether we choose to talk about it or not, whether we choose to open it up and examine its contents once in a while or not, whether we feel it’s light and hardly noticeable or so heavy we can hardly lift our feet into our shoes each day.
Perhaps it all sounds a little depressing, but acknowledging the universal nature of pain and our common desire to avoid further suffering is a beautiful and effective way to embrace compassion and connection. Many times I have practised silently intoning the words, “Tell me about your secret pain” when I come into contact with strangers. I look into their eyes, I see their humanity, I know that they are wearing their backpack, just like me.
I don’t have to know the actual details of my barista’s secret pain to connect with her. I don’t have to know about my bus driver’s grief to appreciate that he is simply another human trying to do his day. I don’t have to know why the bank teller is sighing to know that his sigh comes from the same place my sighs come from.
In our humanity we share the desire to live within the reality of our own suffering, to somehow lighten the burden, and just keep going. This is what we want. We are all refugees fleeing from suffering. And when we acknowledge that simple truth, we realise that the only place to find asylum is with each other.
© Lisa Hassan Scott 2016.