Boo-Boos and Invisible Hurts

It's sometimes easier to pay attention to physical hurts, where we know how to help, than to more hidden needs, though these may be the ones that cause the worst pain.

After cutting my knee open in an accident at a conference, one of the participants was very solicitous going with me to the emergency room for stitches, offering lots of space to be shaken and upset. I was appreciative of his caring, but not exactly sure what to do with it. The cut was deep and had bled impressively, but was not very painful; hospitals, for whatever reason, don’t scare me; and I was mostly anxious to have it over with so we could get back to work. When we did, there was more loving solicitous concern, that seemed all out of proportion to the degree of injury. As I struggled to accept it graciously, the thought kept coming that I wished my internal pain would get such loving attention.

In the midst of such good intention, I couldn’t imagine saying what I was thinking: You’re giving me all this attention for something that isn’t actually bothering me. If you truly are concerned about my well-being, why don’t you ask about the things that really hurt, like feeling lonely, not even being able to notice what I want, not wanting to bother people? I wish they produced such a quantity of blood! (I remember the recurring nightmare in a novel where the fighter pilot focuses all his energy on bandaging the obvious ugly wound on the leg of his comrade, feeling very helpful and successful, only to discover that the man is dying from a much larger internal injury.)

It made me think of how happy we are to help our children with all their little bumps and cuts. We know exactly what to do, and it can be a very satisfying process. We hole them, we comfort them, we wash them gently and apply salve and bandages. We stay close and invite them to tell us about , making a little shield from the outside world as they recover. And we’re glad to do it. We know we’ve been of use. We’ve played an important role in tending to a real need. We’ve been good parents.

My knee finally did start to hurt, but not till after I’d been back from the hospital a while. By then it had been tended to, looked better, and the flurry of solicitousness was over; everything was back to being fine. But what about all the hurts that don’t show quite so obviously?

The feelings of hurt anger that go undercover and come out in stubborn non-cooperation; the accumulation of losses that make a child cling--or go away; the fears that keep them from trying--these are so much more serious than a cut on the finger or a bump on the knee. These are the real hurts of childhood, yet are less likely to get that wonderfully curative treatment that comes with a bandaid.

It’s not surprising, of course. There’s no blood. The cause of the hurt may not be apparent in the present; from one point of view, everything might look just fine. It has none of the reassuringly neutral solidity of a sharp rock. It there is a tangle of causes, that include the action of their parents, then we are not simply in the role of healer. Their behavior may not invoke the immediate rush of sympathy that comes with a woebegone face and the offering up of a hurt finger. (More likely, whatever behavior they are offering up is irritating the hell out of us or we would have figured it out long ago.) I think maybe most of all, we don’t feel smart and competent and unworried and sure we can help the way we do with a bandaid and a kiss.

Of course its not simple. After all, we got to a trained medical person to help with the broken bones. But I think we have more curative powers than we know. Holding a child, noticing the pain they are feeling (visible or not), telling them how sorry we are that they got hurt, listening to their story, withholding the blame, inviting the tears, lending them our confidence that they can heal--together can be profoundly helpful.

I think maybe the hardest part is seeing the blood when it isn’t there--recognizing the invisible hurt and responding to it just the way we would to the simplest boo-boo.