I may have believed in the past that most of us have the ability to be kind and gracious even in the worst of circumstances. I don’t believe that any more. When in pain or under great stress, there may be no room for anything but a need to take care of oneself.
I’m Canadian. We are considered polite. I was raised to be polite. I like to think of myself as polite. Yet I have discovered that cloak of politeness, no matter how pretty a cloak, is still a cloak. It covers the small anger at someone who isn’t listening, it covers the hurt feeling when left out, it covers the loneliness when loved ones are distant.
When really under stress, or under the influence of powerful sedatives, or when in pain, it can be pretty hard to keep that cloak up on my shoulders. I hate that. When that cloak falls away (along with all the other cloaks I wear), it means I can not control this situation, even if it is uncomfortable. It means my best interests are not in my hands. It means I am at the mercy of others who may or may not be nice to me. It’s just me, without the ego, without the ideas of who I am, being vulnerable and helpless.
I was in the hospital recently getting a new hip. The whole experience was positive (although tough, it was surgery after all) and I am grateful for all who where there to help: my husband, my brilliant surgeon & the other doctors who took care of me, all the nurses and physiotherapists and all the others who worked in the background to make my life better. At the same time, it was a time of helplessness and vulnerability. I didn’t always have space to be my usual kind, compassionate, intelligent, funny self. I heard myself groan after a faint when being assisted in bed and felt a bit surprised at how, well, feral the sound was. But what really surprised me was a single moment when I went into the hospital bathroom and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I was a stranger. I didn’t recognize that person. It was as though I was seeing myself through someone else’s eyes. The lady in the mirror looked round and nice and vaguely attractive (even though bed-head was ducktailing my hairdo) and grandmotherly – all traits that could be used to describe me, but she was not familiar. She was a blank slate, a total stranger. My idea of self had been stripped away. I wasn’t scared or weirded out by it. I felt oddly neutral about the experience. I wondered if I was seeing myself without that cloak.
Getting the cloak removed also stripped me of any pride. Well, for a little while anyway.
But it gave me more. It gave me a whole new appreciation of the old lady in the next bed who may have been capable of doing more for herself but didn’t. Maybe she just couldn’t. I watched a woman express her impatience and frustration rudely in a waiting room – trying to micro-manage her situation and upset that it wasn’t working. I wondered if she was in pain. I could almost imagine her cloak slipping off her shoulders. Later, when a woman in the physiotherapy room went on and on and on and demanded ever more attention from the therapist, I was still curious. I wondered if she was in emotional pain, or if she might be lonely. Sometimes people talk a lot when they are lonely. She seemed to be trying very hard to keep her own cloak over her shoulders. Pride. Sense of self. Ego. I bet her cloak was a beautiful one.
Pain, loneliness, unease, fear – no matter the reason for our bad behaviour, it wouldn’t be there if it weren’t an attempt by each of us to make things better for ourselves. None of us like that sense of vulnerability when the cloak falls away.
It makes things easier when we are met by people of great tolerance. The nurses were unfailingly kind to the woman in the next bed. The volunteer in the waiting room met the rudeness of the patient with a smile and assistance. The physiotherapist listened to the talker for longer than he needed to. He seemed to sense her need to bolster up her pride.
The whole experience was good for me – not just because of the new hip, but it gave me a deeper appreciation of tolerance and how important our pride becomes to us at times when we are vulnerable. And it gave me a greater ability to be tolerant of my own un-Canadian (or un-spiritual) rudeness, when my own stress levels are high.
First published September 2012 in my free monthly email newsletter, Starry Night. Sign up here.