A woman sat beside me at the doctor’s office. “I’m in pain,” she said, cradling her knee. Under the flow of her skirt, I couldn’t see what was wrong. Was it swollen? Was it bruised? Was she bleeding and bandaged? All I knew were her words: ‘I’m in pain.’
As we humans tend to do, my first instinct was sympathy. Phrases like, ‘I’m so sorry to hear that,’ and ‘Can I do anything for you?’ came to mind. Thoughts of fetching an ice pack and consoling a stranger claimed my brain.
But I didn’t even know if she needed ice!
And as a medical provider trained in empathy, I could hear how distancing these words really were. ‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ is nice, but it doesn’t mean I share in your pain. ‘Can I do anything for you’ is generous, but it still makes this pain your problem, not mine. In a world of personal boundaries, sympathy is the safest of routes, but it’s far from the most healing.
But the empathetic route, the option to turn to her and say, ‘That must be hard’ or ‘I can’t even imagine what you are experiencing,’ just didn’t seem right either. Because her knee hurt – I could imagine that much. And, as I have learned in my years of improv comedy, never assume another person is thinking the same as you. Maybe this pain is something that excites her – though, that would feel odd. Or, maybe her experience is anger, not sorrow. Maybe she’s angry because her kid left a toy in the hallway and that led to her trip and fall. I hear an improvised ‘Yes, and…’ in the distance. Maybe her kid is a teenager and the game was a video game console that he was supposed to put away hours ago! The real pain is having to deal with that son of hers when she gets home.
Who am I to assume another’s story?
And who am I to intrude on her experience? Sure, I could ask how she feels. I could ask her to tell me more, but I wasn’t her doctor. I wasn’t even an acquaintance. I was a neighbor, a fellow patient in waiting. I was a woman sitting in the same position as her with the only difference being our chief complaints.
And even as a complete stranger, I carried the power to help.
“Have you heard of biofeedback?” I asked, speaking as though I was simply starting a casual conversation. With a neurological illness as a child, biofeedback was one of the many tools at my disposal. With patients in the dental chair, biofeedback was one of the most powerful techniques for alleviating the anxious mind. And in the absence of technology, I knew meditation could be just as complete. “Your mind is a powerful thing.”
I closed my eyes and rested my hands. I softened my shoulders, and let my head fall. I felt the chair beneath my body, and the floor beneath my feet. I asked her to do the same. I took a deep breath in, tasting the air of my surroundings, smelling the plastic of the waiting room chairs. I took a deep breath out, purifying my body of that doctor office smell. I pictured what kind of room the smell came from. I let that image go. I pictured the paintings on the walls. I let those paintings go.
“My hands feel heavy,” I whispered, letting their weight fall into my lap. She repeated. She felt the same.
“My arms feel heavy,” I whispered, letting my shoulders sag against their weight. She repeated. She did the same.
“My arms feel warm,” I smiled, embracing the air around me. My eyes were closed, but I like to imagine she felt the same.
“I feel calm and relaxed,” I inhaled, dropping expression from my face. “I feel calm and relaxed,” I exhaled, dropping pain from my mind. “I feel calm and relaxed,” I finished, nearly falling asleep.
“Rosa, Rosa Sorencio!” A nurse called a name in the distance, opening our eyes to attention. “Rosa!”
And just as quickly as we met, we parted ways, but we weren’t strangers any more. We weren’t women in passing. We were neighbors, or slightly more, united by a moment of calm, gathered in the strength of our own beautiful minds.
And if you think this is just a story, think again! Because your mind is just as powerful. Your strength is just as beautiful.
Each and every one of us carries such an incredible power of healing. Our only true barrier to calm is our noisy selves.
I close my eyes. I relax.
I am at peace.
© 2017 Mirissa D. Price: A Dental Student, A Writer, A Journey to Share.