We live in this society that celebrates strength and healing and moving forward with one’s life despite the obstacles, tribulations, or situations that occur throughout our lives. Every morning, my ritual is to drink coffee/eat breakfast while I listen-watch the news and scroll through Facebook.
I continually see evidence of people’s griefs and pains. And, invariably, I will finally see where someone will use probably the four cruelest words I have ever heard: “Just get over it.”
I’ve used those words. To my chagrin and regret, I have said them without realizing the paralyzing agony they cause. Twenty years ago, one of my friends and hall-mates, Jenny, lost her father. And for the next year, she went through terrible moments of grief that suspended her in motion as she exorcised the tears and somehow found a way to reconcile herself to her loss.
Roughly a year or so later, I was visiting her and she told me a story about how she was hugging a young man and he somehow reminded her of her father. In my mind, I heard her drawing an unrelated parallel between this young man and her late-father. And, in my unwitting cruelness, I said it. Those four words or a variant of them. I told her she needed “to get over it.”
At that point, a mutual friend was mourning the loss of her parents. And I never said something like that to her.
I have never forgotten telling Jenny “to get over it.” Because, as I have gone through nearly twenty years of teaching and heard sad-story after sad-story from my students, I also heard the point where someone said that the child needed “to get over it.”
Recently, I learned that a former student was raped. She was told to “get over it.”
Another former student is dealing with situations from her past that are heart-rending. She was told to “get over it.”
I am reading The Opposite of Loneliness in which the writer, Marina Keegan, was diagnosed with Celiac’s Disease. And, as she wrote about it, I could see how some people expected her to just “get over it.”
I thought the cruelest words were “I hate you.” My son has said them to me in a fit of temper. And I realized that they didn’t hurt at all. Seriously. Not one bit. It hurt me when he suggested that I was abusive when we rough-housed. It also turns out that my son confessed to my husband that he was just saying things to hurt me because “I hate you” didn’t work. And, he already knows that he can call me a “bitch” and it won’t hurt because he called me that when he was four and thought it was a compliment.
I thought the cruelest words were “I don’t love you anymore.” Maybe even “I’m having an affair.” And, no, I haven’t had those words spoken to me so I am not writing from personal experience.
But, as damaging and hellish as those words are, I don’t think they are as damaging as “Just Get Over It.” Because, in those four words, we relegate the pain and suffering to something that is merely a hangnail situation, immediately curable and fixable, a negligible situation.
However, the inability to eat certain foods, I am seeing in my reading and observations, is a painful experience. Because, most likely, the person who is denied the ability to eat these foods knows the pleasurable taste and texture of the food, the incredible joy of biting down and either hearing that ear-pleasing sound of the food being crushed or ripped between the teeth or the delectable explosion of taste that spreads across the mouth and ripples through the senses. Or, finally, that beautiful moment when the food is suspended in the mouth, almost hovering above the tongue before, finally, the molecules spread in a culinary osmosis and we taste and feel and hear everything all at the same time. I am invoking my second-grade memory of chocolate pudding. I loved it when the school served chocolate pudding at lunch…I usually wolfed down my food but I would slowly indulge in one slow spoonful after spoonful of chocolate pudding…because how it would just feel in my mouth before I lifted my tongue to experience the taste. That was delight.
I am not denied foods due to allergies or medical conditions. I deny myself foods to prevent weight gain as I try to shed pounds. But, in the end, I still have the choice to eat what I want, when I want it.
I have not gone through horrific experiences like other people. I am relatively naive and innocent in the world of pain and suffering, for which I am rather grateful. I did not see the flash of pain that must have gone through Jenny’s eyes when I counseled her to “get over it.” I was saying what I thought was the right thing. Twenty years later, I still feel like I owe her an apology.
I am not writing this to suggest that we should celebrate weakness or co-dependency. I know that the troubling situations that I have experienced have strengthened me and made me into a better person. But the fine line must exist. When I was going through my sad moments, being told that things “could always be worse” did not help. I knew then as I know now that life really could be more tragic. I have read enough books, seen enough news reports to know the truth about this.
But the pain was still there and was only heightened because I was relegated to selfishness because I was not celebrating that my life could be so much worse. It was hard enough, at that moment, and the grief I was feeling was subordinated in the face of world crises and other personal problems that could be so much worse.
What I have learned, over the years, is that pain is pain is pain. Some levels are worse. Some people’s abilities to handle pain is better than others. But, in the end, pain is pain is pain. I do think that it is important for people to learn how to adapt to their lives and learn how to live with the unpleasant situations that exist around them. But I also think it’s important that when the unpleasantness turns into a horrible dragon that is destroying you (I’m thinking of Smaug here), then being told to “just get over it” doesn’t help. Unless it is a vehicle for knowing who is not your support so you can move on to the person who will hold your hand through your pain until your own two feet are strong enough to hold you.
And then you can hold the hand of the next person who struggles and needs to be loved.