Pain is a gas, not a liquid…

Right now there are people crowded into shipping containers, into the floorboards of trucks, on top of freight trains, naked in rivers with their clothes in plastic bags tied to their bodies…all trying to get to my country.

They have signed themselves up for years of debt with monthly 10%+ interest accruing, offering whatever possessions, or even family members, they have as collateral…so that they can come here to do exploitative, under-the-table work.

Right now there are people, perhaps millions or even hundreds of millions of people, who would trade torturous pain for the possibility of even half the opportunities and comfort that I have. And there are hundreds of thousands who are actively trying to make that trade…right now.

This is an indisputable reality of this world. These are the raw facts of daily life within global economic apartheid. Over here we can go days or lifetimes without thinking about it, but those millions of people remain whether we acknowledge them for a moment or not. This is real.

But here is the thing that confuses me (beyond the sheer injustice of it all, of course): if I know how unbelievably fortunate I am, and how many people–including my own family members–would suffer so much to experience a fraction of what my life offers, why is it that my own stress and pain feel so strong, so all-consuming? Why is it that the worries that I have this morning, all the anxieties about my never ending to-do list, always feel like they are near the top of the 1-10 scale, even though I’ve actually experienced far worse moments in my life in the past…even in this same year?

I think this is how pain and stress work, and I think it’s why empathy and lasting solidarity are so hard to maintain for so many. Pain and stress have a way of filling up whatever spaces they are given, whether those spaces are substantial and complex, or small and trivial. The way they fill the body, the alerts they send out to the mind and gut, they often ring out in the same tone, regardless of their urgency. Rather than being a substance like a liquid that you can measure and see how close it is to filling up your capacity to handle it, pain and stress are gases that fill up all measuring devices; so hard to quantify, so confusing in the way they haze over your perspective.

By any intellectual calculation, I have so many hundreds of reasons to be happy on this Monday morning, and to be excited about the privilege of doing the kinds of tasks that I get to do this week. The things that I will get paid for, and the amount that I will get paid for them, would feel like both a dream and a cruel joke to so many millions of people. Yet I am here in bed at 8:30am right now (once again, a privilege to not work until 10am) and my stomach is churning with so much acid, I feel so uncomfortable in my body, so uncomfortable in my being. I feel like I’m screwing everything up, like things can’t possibly go right even though my last 30 years show me that, for me, so much ends up going right.

The pain of insecurity, the fear of failure, and then the self-hatred for feeling these things despite my privilege…
How is it that these feelings can be so strong while having so little basis? It’s gotta be physiological, right? It’s gotta be the brain and body chemistry, no? The simple fact that our evolutionary toolbox only contains so many gradations of stress and alarm chemicals, and that we were never meant to use them for things like event planning and campaign organizing?

If we pull back and just look at ourselves and each other across this planet, it’s really pretty sick and fascinating. While one person can’t handle the stress of figuring out which new car to buy, another is struggling to figure out how to keep the electricity on…yet the actual physical sensations and cerebral signals they are both experiencing actually give them a lot in common.

While I fret and groan and come close to crying about how I’m going to possibly finish this week of work productively, I know on so many levels how I should have more perspective and a much more tranquil response…but I’m still a mess anyways.

Currently Reading:

-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi