By Heriberto Escamilla
Those of you that have read my stories have no doubt noticed that I devote much of my thinking to personal development. Even though I stopped formally practicing psychotherapy years ago, accepting my degree carried the promise of helping people with this endeavor.
To me, back then, this meant relieving people of their “psychological problems” or making them happier. After all, people usually seek out therapy when they are experiencing emotional pain and unhappiness. At that time, I didn’t understand that while we may easily label problems and better organize our lives, real “growth”, the kind that promises us happiness starts from our core and always, always calls for facing that which by our very nature, we all seek to avoid, pain and suffering. So helping doesn’t necessarily mean making people feel better, but facing what brings them in to begin with.
Perhaps that’s why I stopped doing the work? How could I help people do something I refused to do? Don’t you hate it when you get into something and then realize that it calls for more than you expected to give? I always have. But you know something? Promises and commitments are serious business even though we may not fully appreciate what we are saying when we make them. So here I am, still struggling to learn about pain, happiness and fulfilling promises.
Like everyone else, suffering introduced itself very early in my life, before my words could even express happiness or pain. My father tells me that, like everyone else, I came into the world crying, but I didn’t stop until just recently.
My father tells me that he struggled to find work and the means to feed us so early on I cried for food. When I was about a year old, he took a job tending chickens at a chicken farm, en un gallinero. We lived in a small shack on the grounds and over the course of two years, were exposed to the feathery little creatures, their cackling, smell and droppings. He tells me that I developed recurring intestinal complications, fever and diarrhea. On at least one occasion, he and I lay side-by-side exchanging the liquid essence of our being. Without a blood transfusion, I would have made an early departure from this beautiful world.
Today, I recognize these symptoms as a bacterial infection called salmonella, a fairly common condition, which the CDC says occurs in the United States at the rate of about 17 cases per 100,000 people. We can and do get salmonella from eating improperly prepared food often, but never realize it. In young children the condition can be much more serious. In some cases, the infection enters the blood stream and can prove fatal. My body knew this already from personal experience and discovering these facts did little to soothe the pain; it was still firmly tucked away in a dark corner of my soul, serving as a foundation for other forms of grief that I created on my own. Man do I know self-pity or what? I should have been a poet.
The years have taught me that our experiences, including the painful ones are our lifelong companions, until death do us part. Even before we draw our first breath, we respond to the world around us, to light, warmth and cold. With our eyes barely open, we begin to feel the inner emptiness that pushes us to find nourishment. While the cells in our brains reach out to touch one another, forming connections, we grow accustomed to the security of our mother’s bosom. And when the world ignores us, we hurt. When the world turns it back the pain is unbearable. Our resentment grows into anger and fear follows close behind. After a while, we forget about food and hunger for attention. We can’t remember these times, you and I but we were fully alive back then, paying attention and actively locking these sensations, these early pains, the ones without words, into the tissue that makes up our body.
Brothers and sisters, pain is not the problem. That’s part of life. It’s what we do with it. Each time we hide it, each time we turn away, we bury a little part of ourselves.
But how does we face pain, anger and fear? Especially when we live in a time and place when we learn to run for relief at even the hint of a headache. And for males, forget it, fears and tears are out of the question. Instead we continue our silent lament; some of us drink, others crave the attention of women, still others further isolate themselves by hurting our sisters and helpless children. We are creative bunch; we never run out of different ways of hiding the truth.
Time has taught me that our pain can have a higher purpose than this senseless lashing out. We just don’t pay attention when we are young. We ignore it. The truth is that it’s you and I that turn our backs. The spirit that animates the world and stirs our hearts never turns away. It’s never too late.
I will tell you a little story. In her mid-forties, my grandmother gave birth to her last son, whom we all affectionately referred to as Kiny. My uncle Kiny never developed his capacity to create words. He shared his world with us through grunts, spastic shrieks and other primitive expressions. He never stood on up. His trembling and twisted little body never left the makeshift wheelchair that was carefully crafted around his body. We were never sure if Kiny was born with Down’s Syndrome, or whether he was a victim of meningitis or some other condition that gripped him early in his life. The label is not even important. Labels only give us the temporary relief that comes from identifying a possible cause. Twenty-one years after he first opened his eyes, they closed for the last time. He never shared a single thought but his agony screamed out with every gesture. Most people, including myself turned away from Kiny. He made us feel uncomfortable, afraid.
My grandmother didn’t. She was a tough woman whose contorted face, leathery hands and small frame carried overwhelming evidence of intense suffering. Her face was twisted from an encounter with a bull early in her life. What left an indelible impression on me was the attention that my grandmother selflessly devoted to Kiny. From the time he was born, she never left his side. She washed his rigid body, fed and cared for his every need. Only when absolutely necessary, would she leave his care to one of my aunts or uncles and even on these occasions for a few hours at most. My grandmother explained to me one day that Kiny was a gift from God. She confessed to me, without going into all of the details of course, that in her prime she had been a harsh and brutal woman, who had inflicted a lot of pain on her children. She saw Kiny, as an opportunity for redemption, an opportunity to secure forgiveness. Although he never uttered a word to her, my grandmother completed understood Kiny’s pain, they shared it.
The old ones teach us. The people of ancient Mexico greeted each other with en la kesh, which translates, as “you are my other self”. They referred to their companions as cuatle, their cuates, or twins. They taught us that real happiness comes by seeing ourselves in others. They understood that pain, like happiness connects us to one another. How do we face pain and suffering, how do we help? The old ones told us to share it. So simple, isn’t it?
Heriberto (Beto) Escamilla, originally from Monterrey, Nuevo León, México, was raised in Houston, Texas until moving to San Diego in 1984. He received his doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the California School of Professional Psychology-San Diego Campus.