November 8, 2018

LEUNG | On Carrying Pain

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Sometimes I’m scared to write certain pieces, because if I do, I’ll fall into some downward spiral after shifting through my memories, and this article isn’t supposed to be my attempt to pull myself from some depth, but one that hopes to understand? Find hope? I don’t really know yet.

I’ve been thinking about pain a lot. About how every individual carries their own burden and as much as we try to relieve the pain of others, there’s not always a way to. We can listen, support, love. But a lot of times, that doesn’t feel like enough.

I remember walking through the streets of a foreign city with a person I had met a few days earlier. He told me his friend had just died, and here he was in a place he didn’t want to be in anymore and I didn’t know what to do. I said sorry; I knew that wasn’t enough.

I was sitting in a bar, listening to live music. One of my friends walked off. When I followed him, he told me his mom was ill and there was a high chance she wouldn’t survive. I sat next to him, and wanted to tell him it would be okay. But it wasn’t; his sadness and pain and anger was justified.

I feel like I don’t even have to state it, but there is importance in it: pain cannot be compared. There is no way the suffering one feels can be measured up against someone else’s.

I took a six week course in Rome and in the end, I was supposed to read something I had written for the class; a creative piece, or a poem, something my teacher had already read and edited. I think I read a villanelle I had workshopped in class. But I also read another piece that my closest friends on the program probably didn’t know, or expect, to be read. I ended with a paragraph about how I wish there was some way I could shoulder everyone’s pain so I wouldn’t have to see everyone pretending to be so strong all the time. I wrote that I wanted to bottle all of our memories — the sweetness of sunsets and gelato, late nights and cheap wine — but I wanted a way I could take a little bit of their burden and make it my own.

Then I think of my own pain. When I have sought answers and realized I have none. When the inevitability of events seems overwhelming. And while my presence on the other end seems pointless at times (a shoulder, an ear, a hug, a voice), when someone can give me that, it makes me realize that their openness to care means I am not alone.

Milan Kundera, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, writes that the type of compassion that allows you to not only live with other people’s misfortune, but also feel with them any emotion — joy, anxiety, happiness, pain — signifies the maximal capacity of affective imagination: the art of emotional telepathy. It is the highest level of the hierarchy of sentiments. When I read that, I felt some sort of relief; it made me feel better at how upset I get about other people’s problems and always try to find ways in which I can relieve them.

I’m a crier — any world event that I don’t agree with and know will affect many people’s lives will start the tears;  any personal problem on the smallest scale will also do the same. Maybe people will dub me a snowflake. Others, weak. But I do believe there’s a certain strength that comes from empathizing so greatly with others that pain alone cannot be isolated. I think it allows action to take place, because even though something might not affect you directly, the fear of its repercussions on others is enough to move you.

This morning, I woke to news of another shooting that occurred at a bar in Thousand Oaks, California, leaving 12 dead. It was a college night at the bar, bringing in dozens of students to one of Ventura County’s largest country dance halls and live music venues. I am hurting for the people whose family members and friends were in that bar; for the moment when they heard about the shooting and knew that someone they knew or loved was in there and not responding. This strengthens my belief that there is a need for stricter gun control — of continuing to elect officials who stand with this, to support organizations that work towards this goal — but right now, I just feel the pain.

I wish I could channel this emotion into something meaningful. Maybe writing allows people to find solace in something and begin to heal. So, for now, this is to everyone who is hurting.

Gabrielle Leung is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at gleung@cornellsun.com. Serendipitous Musings appears alternate Thursdays this semester.