The Pain Scale


Two Thursdays ago:

I haven’t said a prayer in possibly two years. After getting lab work done and before my diabetes appointment, I wandered into the hospital chapel. I’m a sinner, and this place is sacred and full of the sick and needy — exactly the place where Jesus would be if he were living in the flesh. I’m primarily here for familiar but abandoned scenery. The last time I felt compelled to depend on a higher power was when I visited a Gothic cathedral in NY.

I see what looks like a guest book on a small table right inside the entrance. It is tempting to peek inside. The uglier part of me wants to compare undeniable suffering with the pain I feel. This book and its sorrows will put everything in perspective and renew my faith in my own greatness.

Other peoples’ pain is a powerful remedy if you know how to use it right. (I hope you realize this isn’t me giving real advice).

I grab the guest book and sit in a pew. I spend 1.5 hours reading the entries. Someone’s wife died during childbirth in this hospital. Someone’s mother has bleeding and swelling in her brain. A child prays for her hospitalized friend with asthma. Someone prays for people who are on meds, hippies who abuse meds, and people with herpes and STDs. Someone’s mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer just two months ago in September. Her daughter sat in this chapel, she wrote a prayer for her dying mother, and I am spying on her exchange with God. I’m spying on all of them, hoping to eventually feel triumphant.

I recently read a creative nonfiction piece by Eula Biss called “The Pain Scale.” She wrote:

Assigning a value to my own pain has never ceased to feel like a political act. I am a citizen of a country that ranks our comfort above any other concern. People suffer, I know, so that I may eat bananas in February. And then there is history … I struggle to consider my pain in proportion to the pain of a napalmed Vietnamese girl whose skin is slowly melting off as she walks naked in the sun. This exercise itself is painful.  “You are not meant to be rating world suffering,” my friend in Honduras advises. “This scale applies only to you and your experience.”

Sitting here by myself in a hospital full of strangers, I rate my pain a 3. But, like Eula, I have to compare. We need proof that our pain is actually what we imagine it is. A pain scale tells me my pain is actually a 5: moderate; unable to do some activities due to pain. I don’t want to think my pain is a 5, especially when it will get worse once I leave.

“The problem with scales from zero to ten,” my father tells me, “is the tyranny of the mean.” Overwhelmingly, patients tend to rate their pain as a five, unless they are in excruciating pain. At best, this renders the scale far less sensitive to gradations in pain. At worst, it renders the scale useless. I understand the desire to be average only when I am in pain. To be normal is to be okay in a fundamental way.

I have only felt average twice in my life and both times were due to failing a treasured partner. I don’t handle failure well — adapting and learning feels futile in light of major betrayal. I may overcome weakness but that weakness still harmed the people I promised to protect. I caused the deepest harm of all.

The pain scale tells me I’m not invincible; I’m average. I cannot act consistently perfect. While these are my darkest days, and I see the ugliest parts of myself, these days remind me I’m a human being and not a savior. I’m not pure nor wholly good. I’m not worthy of idolization or worship because I am but a woman. A great one, but just a woman. And I don’t use “just” as a derogatory descriptor — to be human and to do good is more admirable than the steadfast benevolence of a perfect deity. To fall to one’s knees and look up — to not only accept that the average person can do extraordinary things, but then act upon that acceptance — is to then remember we are but individual cogs in a machine. We can remove ourselves or we can rework our purpose and persevere.

My experience in this hospital is average and yet the only one of its kind. There is proof. Spy.

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