A couple of weeks ago, I had an exchange on Twitter that taught me something about pain. The whole thing began when I tweeted an article published in The Guardian called, “Five Things Trump Could Do Right Now to Ease the Opioid Crisis.” At this point, I don't remember much about the essay. It must have been somewhat interesting, otherwise I wouldn't have wasted my time tweeting it, though I suspect nothing about it was overly insightful or radical. It was just another article sent out to the world with a relatively harmless message attached:
Off the tweet went, and disappeared into the universe. I forgot about it, as I do with most things I tweet, and moved onto other reading, other thoughts. But when I returned to my phone that afternoon, I found this message:
In the short time I've been on Twitter (and back on Facebook after a year long hiatus), I've been largely spared this kind of blunt response to my writing and the articles I've shared. I've received a fair amount of critique and disagreement from readers, which I actually really enjoy. The majority of it has been thoughtful and engaging. But seeing this response caught me off guard. Nothing about it was particularly aggressive or disrespectful, but it hit me on a personal level. It pushed a certain button. I've lost people I loved in recent years to overdoses, and because of this, my initial response was a swelling of anger. How could someone call 150 (up to 175 now, I believe) deaths a day from opioid overdoses bullshit? How could someone say that my friends who have died are dead because of bullshit?
I wanted to shoot back, tell this guy how ignorant his comment was, how narrow minded a view of the world he must have, how heartless to call this situation bullshit. But in recovery, I've learned that my first reaction is, more often than not, the wrong one. I've been schooled in the restraint of tongue and pen, which is especially difficult to apply on social media where it's so easy to come out type out some pithy little jab, and hit send. In the virtual realm, pulling the trigger is simple because I am staring down a screen instead of another living, breathing human being.
So, I put my phone away, and came back to the comment later. When I did, here's how I responded:
After thinking about this individual's response, I realized we did have some common ground. Addiction to alcohol is a real issue that I feel deserves attention, so after saying hello, I told him just that. I also felt like it was important that I express my view on the opioid crisis. Engaging in a respectful manner doesn't mean my views get shut down. I expressed my opinion straight forward way. No shots fired. No problem.
Here's the response I got back:
Ok. Here's a shift. suddenly the context broadens. In these words, I see a human being who is facing the real struggles of being taken off of a medication that he needs. He is a person who is is suffering.
At this point in our exchange, I was reminded that anger is often the mask we wear over our pain. If I had shot back with my initial thoughts, belittled this guy, called him ignorant, cold hearted or whatever, I would have totally missed the opportunity to see him. And in seeing him, I realized that the initial comment had nothing to do with me at all, even though I really wanted to make it so.
Here's how I responded:
Once the mask of anger is removed, and the pain is revealed, we have the opportunity to be helpful. I tried. Perhaps there was a better response than the one I gave, but I made myself available in the best way I knew how at that moment. Interestingly, the exchange began to learn toward dialog. The little I'd learned about this guy was enough to offer a genuine response that was directed toward what was really at issue for him. I also began to see another angle of the opioid crisis. Before this back and forth, I'd given little thought to the fact that there are people out there who live with chronic pain who are being impacted, too. This guy, though sharing his experience, was broadening my perspective.
Though the tone of the exchange remained a bit tense, and my attempt to be helpful was a flop, there is another shift in his final comment:
The exchange ended on somewhat of a reconciliatory note. In a slant way, he apologized for his approach. I believe this came as the result of being seen. Through my recognition of his pain, he began to see the way his pain was manifesting. Because of this, I had the opportunity to let him know it was not a problem, and wish him well. The discussion ends in a much better place than it started:
Guess who that one "like" came from.
I don't share this conversation to pat myself on the back for the way I responded. Trust me, had it been another day, had I been feeling less centered, I would have taken the bait just as quick as the next person and done my best to cut this guy down. I share it because it points me toward something bigger.
I can imagine this interaction having gone another way. Had I followed the anger I felt at the outset of the conversation, an anger that was inspired by the pain I feel in response to my own losses, I would have struck back, which would have caused more pain. That pain would have likely inspired another blow. And on it goes. Pain begets pain.
There is a better way, and I think its implications could be enormous if we can begin to practice in small ways. When I see anger, I should assume it's masking some kind of pain. If I can engage in a respectful and empathetic way, that pain might be revealed. When the pain is revealed, I have the opportunity to address what is really there. And in the process, my own perspective might be broadened.