Putting Pain In Perspective

Pain is a funny thing.  Not haha-funny, of course.  But funny in its ability to feel as though it waxes and wanes so dramatically based on circumstances that are completely outside of your control.  The earliest time I remember realizing this, I was 12 years old.  Humor me, on a brief trip down memory lane.  


Memory Lane Has Potholes

When I was 12 years old, I stole my sister’s “big girl bike” and was riding it around the neighborhood instead of being at home dusting the furniture like I was supposed to since my mom was expecting company.  Murphy’s laws being what they are, I managed to fall off the bike and walked home crying and clutching my arm.  To this day, I claim there must have been a pothole on our impeccably paved street.

My mom was pretty ticked at me for not doing what I was told, and didn’t seem all that convinced that I wasn’t feigning a much worse injury to avoid getting into trouble.  So what did she do?  She sent me to the bathtub.  For two hours while “company” sat with mom in the dining room, I sat in a bathtub two rooms over, crying and whimpering in pain every time the water in the tub moved.  I was very clean by the end of that bath, but my arm was also huge.  And, as it turned out, broken.  And my mom felt AWFUL.

For about a day, I reveled in how much pity I was getting.  I felt so sorry for myself.  My summer vacation was going to be ruined by this.  Not only was my arm broken, but my mom was such a bad mother (come on, the pediatrician had to be thinking it!) that she had ignored my pain long enough that my arm was even too swollen to properly set.  I had to wait for days for the swelling to go down sufficiently to get a hard cast.

Not used to getting fussed over, I played it up – vowing that I was traumatized and that I’d never again get on a bicycle.  But then something awful happened the day after my fall.

Superman almost died.

I fell off a bike and broke my arm.  Christopher Reeve fell off a horse and broke his spine.  Suddenly my own injuries seemed pretty trivial by comparison.

While this is probably the earliest recollection I have of my own pain being put into perspective by someone else’s, it’s certainly not the only occurrence.  After being rear-ended in a car accident a couple years ago, I was still hopped up on Vicodin and feeling sorry for myself the following day when the brother of an old friend died as the victim of a senseless bullet in a horrendous act of unprovoked violence.  My pain seemed to disappear as my heart poured out for my friend and his family.


Finding Strength In Others

When something hurts, be it physically or emotionally, it’s not easy to set it aside or move beyond it.  To say otherwise can risk trivializing the pain.

But I now try to take some time and think about those with challenges that are greater or equal to your own.  Often we have such faith in the strength of others, that we are confident that they will “pull through” or “persevere”.  Keeping that in mind is part of the key to closing the disconnect between my own pain, and finding the confidence that I, too, will be able to move past this.

Stumpy – A Visual Example

Meet Stumpy – our resident mangled squirrel.

Perhaps the easiest way to explain it is to introduce you to a “friend” of ours in the neighborhood.  Stumpy is at least a part-time resident in The Tree in our front yard.  While Stumpy is a squirrel, that wasn’t really 100% evident when we first saw him.  His name gives it away a bit – but it’s pretty clear that Stumpy has faced some tremendous tragedies and struggles in his little squirrel life.

At first we thought he was just missing a tail.  (Not to trivialize missing a tail, I’m pretty sure that’s a big deal for a squirrel.)

But then we realized that Stumpy didn’t really run around the same way that other squirrels did.  He hopped, more like a bunny rabbit.  After a while, we got better looks at him (Stumpy is understandably pretty antsy about when it comes to humans and cars!) and realized that Stumpy’s missing not only most of his tail, but one of his front legs, too.  The hopping is a byproduct of Stumpy’s missing front limb.

We can only guess how Stumpy became, well… stumpy.  But what we don’t have to guess at is how he deals with it now.  Stumpy’s been a fixture in our yard since the day we moved in, which puts him well beyond the mean life expectancy of a squirrel at birth, and well on his way to reaching the mean life expectancy of an adult squirrel.

By all indications, Stumpy doesn’t rest on his laurels waiting for help or crying over his missing appendages.  He’s out there with the rest of them, gathering acorns, running around the trees, and occasionally trying to play “unsuccessful leap frog” with some of the lady squirrels.  (That’s why we assume Stumpy’s a he!)  While you’d think missing a front arm might make climbing trees or running along telephone wires dangerous, Stumpy does it in style.  Running along a telephone wire looks more akin to a small rabbit hooping along the wire than a squirrel.  It really is a sight to behold.


Take Home On Stumpy

Some people laugh at their hardships – like Tig Notaro whose “cancer stand-up” act was profiled in a This American Life episode called What Doesn’t Kill You.  (If you have time, click through to listen – it’s excellent!)

But that doesn’t always work for me.  But when I twist my ankle or hurt a foot, all I have to do is think about Stumpy.  If a squirrel can face such huge hardships and still manage to thrive and live a full life.  Well, surely we, who have much bigger brains to solve our problems than dear Stumpy, can face our hardships and thrive as well.  And that’s how I try to put pain in perspective.


How do you deal with pain and setbacks?  How do you put them in perspective and try and move forward?

36 comments to Putting Pain In Perspective

  • CR

    Haha, Stumpy’s story just brightened my day!
    CR recently posted..Searching for a new apartment? Use your Walk Score to get a good valueMy Profile

  • When things go bad and I get hurt, sometimes I can make a joke of it, but sometimes it really sucks. And I think it’s okay to feel upset about it. But like you say, only to an extent. At some point, you gotta get on with things. Wehter you’re missing a limb, some hair, some skin, whatever… life is what it is and you can’t wallow around about the crap stuff that happens, right? Stumpy isn’t. He’s just getting on with it.
    TB at BlueCollarWorkman recently posted..How to Win a Bid on a JobMy Profile

    • I wish I were better about laughing when things suck, but that’s just not me. I’m glad that you’re able to – that’s a great way to keep things from getting to you too much.

  • Aww that squirrel is so cute!

    I have to admit there have been times I feel sorry for myself. For example, every time I see my paycheck and all the taxes that come out of it. But, then I think, I live in the US. It could be much worse. I could live in North Korea, the Sudan…you get my point. I rather pay taxes.
    SavvyFinancialLatina recently posted..Are there cliches at your company?My Profile

    • I know, he’s awesome =) We love Stumpy!

      Yeah, taxes are definitely painful to pay, but I try and think about all of the good things that I get for paying them, and it makes the pill easier to swallow.

      • Karen Anne

        I’d rather pay the kinds of taxes they pay in Scandinavia, and have that social safety net that makes ours look like a sieve.

  • I’ve been told that I have a high pain threshold (most recently by my dentist, lol). I tend to bottle everything up and push on, thinking it makes me strong. I’m learning to share my pain and setbacks with those close to me because letting stress build inside me is unhealthy. Even if they can’t help me, just knowing there are people who care enough to listen means a great deal to me.
    Tina recently posted..Random Facts About MeMy Profile

    • I’ve been told the same thing – but I think you’re right that having too high a pain threshold can be bad. It’s great to have people to talk to even if they can’t fix everything, just to help relieve the stress by talking.

  • Ugh, I relate to this post in unfortunate ways. I had two spinal fusions in my early 20’s and am in chronic pain off and on. It comes for weeks then disappears for weeks and for the life of me I cannot figure out what makes it come and go. Anyway, I choose to push through it and look forward to the weeks at a time when I am pain free. That’s the only thing I can do.
    Holly@ClubThrifty recently posted..Ways to Pay Less Taxes and Save MoneyMy Profile

    • Holly, I totally understand. Did I tell you I ended up finding a Rx that actually helps with my back pain? It’s got side effects, so I try and only use it when it’s really necessary, but after 2 years of back pain, it’s nice to finally find something that helps.

    • Karen Anne

      Hilly, I feel dumb even suggesting this, because I’m sure you’ve already done it, but have you seen a physical therapist lately who specializes in that type of problem?

  • Great post. Feels very relevant to me because of this shoulder pain I’ve been dealing with since August. I do feel sorry for myself occasionally when I can’t play volleyball, my most favorite thing on earth, but if that’s the worst it gets for me than I have no problems whatsoever. I can still run, do yoga (with modifications), and many other things. I just need to keep perspective!
    Budget and the Beach recently posted..Link Love/Week in Review 2/22/13My Profile

  • I try to put time perspective on any hardship. Will I care about it in 5 years? just laugh about it? Even the worst things like death of a close person feel less painful over time. I also love to watch the animals around the house, they are so resilient and have so much to teach us.
    Pauline recently posted..Friday recap, a coming out and a win!My Profile

    • Putting time perspective sounds great – there is so much that we know at the time isn’t going to be a big deal in five years, but it feels huge at the time.

  • Physical and emotional pain is a part of life and the worst thing we can do is ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist. I think we need to be willing to seek help from others…doctors, friends, pastors, etc…and not try to always handle it on our own.
    Brian @ Luke1428 recently posted..How Far Would You Go To Get What You Want?My Profile

  • Oh, I absolutely love this! Go Stumpy! When I encounter pain (I’m a big wuss) I try to think about all those who have it harder than me and how temporary it usually is. I do try to take appropriate recovery time and not push through it too fast, though. I’ll have Stumpy from now on for inspiration!
    femmefrugality recently posted..Picking Instructors to Save TuitionMy Profile

  • I must admit, I am not always the most positive when I go through setbacks. I tend to think why me and its not fair. But I try not to dwell on it too much and try to move on.

    I also consider myself to have a high pain threshold. I think it comes from going through the trainings to become an instructor. I’ve taught when I’ve had the flu, shoulder and wrist injuries. It’s not the smartest thing to do and quite difficult to do physically, but sometimes you have no choice.
    MakintheBacon$ recently posted..Sleepless, but not in SeattleMy Profile

    • I remember trying to take sick time when I was teaching – it was always a nightmare and not worth the trouble unless I was absolutely dying!

  • lisa lo

    There are 2 kinds of physical pain. Chronic and acute. Had and have both. Chronic 12 years daily now.

  • Awe poor stumpy. My first dealings with squirrels in Canada was when I was out having a smoke ( I used to smoke) and watched a mum squirrel toss all her babies to the ground from the tree and ran off. The babies were crying so I got a box and put them inside and they stopped crying. We all have a way of dealing with pain may it be like stumpy or the babies who fell from the tree shaken, likely in some pain from being dropped so high and missing their mum I presume. From a young age I believe we psychologically learn how to deal with situations and only maximize those skills over the years. Pain to one person may be far worse than it is to another but it’s still a pain that is deeply affecting them but we all choose to deal with it differently. If I am in a situation of pain I choose to deal with it the best way I can depending on what surrounds it. I try to be optimistic, find an alternative way, and see the good in every situation. I feel that living in a dark world only keeps the covers on us. Opening ourselves up to learning to live with what we are dealt with is better than giving up on life itself. Pain… is something we can’t judge a person for feeling as pain for some takes over a persons life, and options are far and few. Just because someone looks healthy doesn’t mean they are. Great post… Does Stumpy come up to you at all?
    Canadianbudgetbinder recently posted..Mr.CBB’s Personal Finance Reading List #8~ Working Past Age 65My Profile

    • Oh, I’m so glad you were able to save the baby squirrels! Stumpy doesn’t really come up to people – in fact, he’s more skittish about people and other animals than a lot of the other squirrels. Some of the others will taunt Kitty PoP from outside the screen, but Stumpy never does.

  • My physical pain tolerance is basically non existent. A papercut, I will feel intensely, and it will bug me until it heals. Not good with physical pain (so am thankful that I have no health isssues aside from being half blind and having debilitating hayfever, which is uncomfortable as hell but not painful). T has a lot of pain in back, joints, neck, arms, but never complains. He’s the opposite.

    Setbacks… without sounding totally self pitying, we’ve been through a lot, so I no longer cry and feel sorry for myself as a rule. Just scream a little internally or sigh, then soldier on. It’s all you can do – if you can’t change things, all you can do is deal as best as you can.

    Because I spend so much time online (!!) I think I calibrate a lot based on other bloggers. Financially we are way behind many of them (though ahead of the debt bloggers), and healthwise I know so many bloggers are struggling with terrible physical and chronic problems, so I am really grateful and try to appreciate my lot.
    eemusings recently posted..Link love (Powered by early mornings and blog lovin’)My Profile

    • I think screaming a little inside is totally reasonable when things get tough. Sometimes I want to scream a little on the outside too, but Mr. PoP helps me breathe through it.

  • Some people are just so good at finding the bright side no matter how things suck at times. Wish I could be that optimistic.
    Sarah Park recently posted..5 Marketing Ideas for ResortsMy Profile

  • That is one tough little squirrel! While losing most of a tail might not be a life-threatening injury, losing a leg out in the wild, with no veterinary care, surely should be. And since a squirrel’s tail has a purpose (helps to balance them in trees), ultimately just not having a tail could be life-threatening for the little guy.

    Pain is weird…it seems to depend so much on one’s current state of mind, especially chronic pain. And yes, it sure does seem like there’s always someone else who’s in worse shape, doesn’t it?

    A friend on the choir is pretty crippled up with arthritis. She uses a cane — and on bad days, a walker — but she spends an enormous amount of her time helping others. It’s as though focusing on people who have bigger problems helps her to deal with her own discomfort. And, I suppose, she’s just inherently a decent human being…
    Funny about Money recently posted..Furniture Revisited: Feeling HappierMy Profile

    • Stumpy is definitely a trooper. And it sounds like your friend from the choir is as well. I think there’s something to be said for helping others to stay pulled together yourself. My grandmother’s health only started to go downhill after she no longer needed to be the primary caregiver for my grandfather. =(

  • […] Our Pennies talks about Pain and puts it into perspective… and stumpy really is an inspiration, a must […]

  • Amy

    A great support system plays a big part, which is how I cope up. My family and friends help me to move forward. They always tell me how lucky I am that I’m still breathing and teach me how to adjust with my pain for I suffered from an injury. It’s not easy at first because you can feel like you’ve been cheated but if you come to the point that you realize it’s not worth, positive thoughts started to came in. Thanks for sharing your story, it was a great read!
    Amy recently posted..2 Dead in Waco Fatal CrashMy Profile

  • Pain, whether physical or otherwise, can usually be turned into a learning experiences. We didn’t have money growing up and my dad was a borderline alcoholic. Some of my memories are far from pleasant. Even at a very young age, I vowed that I’d never repeat their mistakes and I haven’t. I taught myself about money and always made sure I used alcohol responsibly and in extreme moderation.

    The thing that always makes me scratch my head is that I grew up with many kids in the same boat and most of them went on to repeat their parents bad behavior. I never understood this. Even 30+ years later, the pain is still fresh in my head. Absolutely no *&^%ing way I’m subjecting my children to the same stuff.

    My life is great now though, so don’t feel bad for me in any way!
    Mr. 1500 recently posted..Apple’s real enemy isn’t SamsungMy Profile

    • Very true – though I’d love to understand what the difference between learning from pain like that and learning to repeat pain like that comes from.