Pathies: Sym- vs. Em-

A friend used to say, “If everyone could throw their problems onto a table in the middle of the room and then listen to each other’s stories, everyone would go crazy trying to make sure they got their own problem back.”

Until this past year, I was unfamiliar with the term “spoonie” or the “spoon theory.” For those with chronic, painful and pain-filled conditions and illness, the term has become incredibly popular in the last half-decade, because it depicts better than most analogies what it is like to live with a chronic illness or disability.

A writer named Christine Miserandino is credited with inventing the analogy on her terrifically-named website, But You Don’t Look Sick. She has lupus and tells a story about how she explained to her best friend what her world is like. She handed the friend a dozen spoons and explained that it is now the start of a new day and that different tasks would cost a spoon each. When she reveals that “getting up and showering” would cost a couple spoons, the point started to become clear.

From “The Spoon Theory” :

I asked her to count her spoons. She asked why, and I explained that when you are healthy you expect to have a never-ending supply of “spoons.” But when you have to now plan your day, you need to know exactly how many “spoons” you are starting with. It doesn’t guarantee that you might not lose some along the way, but at least it helps to know where you are starting. She counted out 12 spoons. She laughed and said she wanted more. I said no, and I knew right away that this little game would work, when she looked disappointed, and we hadn’t even started yet. I’ve wanted more “spoons” for years and haven’t found a way yet to get more, why should she? I also told her to always be conscious of how many she had, and not to drop them because she can never forget she has Lupus.

People with chronic pain have a talent for analogy that perhaps they did not know they had until they learned that they needed to find a way to communicate what life feels like for them. They become good explainers, because the quality of their life depends on it.

Because pain is one of the most personal of sensations, or appears to be—a burn might feel the same for you as it feels or me, but we only have our anecdotes to compare and weigh against one another; meanwhile, I’m on fire!—because perception is personal and pain is utterly a perception and not a measurable reality, those who suffer chronic pain are left with their own talent for creating analogies to make others understand their day, their night, their world. Anyone who has visited a pain specialist (I have not) is familiar with the range of sketched faces that they must circle to communicate how much pain they are in. I have a friend with fibromyalgia, and I remember her saying things like, “My back is at a 7, but my legs are a 5.”

Good sensations seem to be almost universal; our senses of humor may differ, but a laugh is a laugh. Your feet might be ticklish while my arms might be, but a tickle is the same for us both. (Unless it causes pain, which it might for someone with fibromyalgia.) As much as I love comedy and enjoy making people laugh, I have not yet found myself explaining why I found that one punch-line made me laugh with a barely audible “Heh” (call it a 4 on the laugh scale that does not exist) and another one got a laugh from the back of my throat.

Until July 15, 2010, I did not have much skill with empathy. Sympathy, sure. Sympathy is an “attaboy” given to someone bearing up under a weight without offering to assist in lifting it at all. Sympathy was something I gave to someone with the expectation that I would be thanked by the injured party. “Wow, that sucks,” is sympathy, and before the other person can continue talking and telling the sympathetic person any details, the sympathetic person has moved on, having rescued them with an “attaboy” of sympathy.

Empathy is love. It is saying to someone, “I do not know what this is like. Tell me,” and then listening. Of the two “‘pathies,” it is the one that requires more effort but can bring greater rewards.

If my problems were in the center of the room—my diminished mobility and two hands that are becoming clubs (I can tie shoelaces, but only if I want to eat up a day)—I would take them back. And maybe they have given me a modicum of empathy.

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In answer to no one’s question: Yes. I chose a new layout. I was using “The Columnist” all 2014, was happy with it, but thought I would change things for the new year. I am using the free layouts still, but might invest in this website. Any suggestions? Sympathy? Empathy? Does this layout make my ideas look good?

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for January 1 asks, “If you could spend the next year as someone radically different from the current ‘you’—a member of a different species, someone from a different gender or generation, etc.—who would you choose to be?”

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