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What 'Downsizing' Got Right (and Wrong) About Pain

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The Mighty’s editors are also a part of some of the communities we report on. Below, Crystal Hodges, our contributing editor, writes about chronic pain not as an editor but as a person with chronic pain.

Author’s Note: The following is a discussion of the movie “Downsizing” and contains spoilers.

Waste. Pollution. Overpopulation. Extinction. The end of humanity. These are all things that were on the minds of Norwegian scientists in the new movie “Downsizing.”

To save the planet and all of humanity, scientists came up with a voluntary medical procedure known as “downsizing.” Shrinking humans to a mere five inches, their waste would be minimized, pollution would be lessened and the risk of overpopulation would be less of a concern. While the procedure wasn’t supposed to be forced (although this became an issue in refugee situations), their goal was to downsize humanity over a period of time.

When Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) first heard of the procedure, he was in awe. The whole world was talking, and so was he.

One scene from the movie sticks out in my mind. Safranek was talking with his mother, whom he began caring for when she became ill, and his mother seemed baffled by the whole thing. In frustration, she asked, “Scientists can shrink people, but they can’t cure my fibromyalgia? I can’t breathe. I’m in pain. Doesn’t that matter?” While helping his mother, Paul reflected, “A lot of people are in pain, mom, in a lot of different ways.”

In some respects, his reply felt dismissive of her physical pain and frustration that chronic pain wasn’t being taken seriously. If a man of six feet could be reduced to five inches, how difficult could it be to relieve the chronic pain of millions around the world? Why didn’t that seem urgent enough to scientists? Those are valid questions.

Maybe, his comment came from a place of pain he carried, pain he felt was ignored and unseen. Pain of dreams unreached of becoming a surgeon, because he had to drop out of college to take of his mother. Pain of settling for a job that bored him. Pain of seeing his mother struggle on a day-to-day basis, just wanting the best for her. A pain of being tired from balancing a job, being a caregiver, and having a personal life.

Yet, at the same time, his statement was a good reminder. We all focus on our own pain – the physical or emotional – because it’s embedded in our daily lives. It cries for our attention, screams to be acknowledged. It wants to be heard, and it enjoys throwing a tantrum any chance it has. It’s hard not to be swallowed by our own aches, throbbing, or thoughts, emotional scars, and burdens carried. But, there are many forms of pain affecting humanity in ways we cannot fathom – from the physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and financial.

It also reminded me of my own chronic pain journey that started at the age of 12. Because of my age, people assumed I was perfectly healthy. When my pain came up, it was often questioned and denied by others – from teachers to friends. But, as someone with chronic pain now in their 20s, it also reminds me to never assume person next to me isn’t hurting. It reminds me that maybe when a stranger treats me unkindly or cuts me off on the road, that maybe they’re having a hard or painful day. When I want to respond back in frustration to someone who is taking their bad day on me, maybe I can offer them a moment of “pain relief” with a smile, or asking how they’re doing. Maybe I can offer pain relief through compassion and showing genuine care and concern for the person in front me. Maybe I’ll be the only person to show that someone cares about them on that particular, hard and painful day.

Yes, my pain is real. Even in the fictional movie, in the storyline, the pain of Paul’s mom was real.

Paul’s response to her statement wasn’t totally wrong – but it wasn’t totally right either.

Acknowledging pain has to be balanced.

When someone vents to you about their pain or opens up to you – address it. Don’t deny their experiences that you’ve never lived through. Because of how people reacted to my pain during my childhood and teen years, it’s rare that I open up about that part of my journey. Most people who know me don’t know that part of my story because I just don’t know how to talk about it, and I don’t want to risk being seen in a different light – whether I’m pitied or seen as a liar. If someone is opening up to you, it’s important that you let that person know that you heard them, that you’re listening that you see their struggle. It’s important to show that you care.

And if you have pain of any kind – physical or emotional – remember your pain is real. It is so very valid, and I’m sorry if anyone has ever made you feel otherwise. However, please remember that you’re not the only one. Open up to your friends and family about your pain, and realize they may have a form of pain they’ve never opened up to you about as well. Maybe they’re struggling with depression, anxiety, or have an undiagnosed condition. Maybe they’re worried about judgment, stigmas, or just feel like they don’t have anyone to talk to…or how to talk about their battle.

How could Paul’s response to his mother be better?

“I know you’re hurting mom, and I’m sorry to see you struggle. I hope that doctors are putting just as much effort into helping people with chronic pain as they are to downsizing, that they’re just as worried about saving patients from pain as they are saving the world from waste and pollution. So many people are in pain, of all kinds, and I wish that weren’t the case.”

Overall, I’m thankful for Paul’s reminder that there’s pain in this world, pain in people’s lives, that we can’t see. So much of our lives are invisible to others, and parts of us that are unknown to those around us. Yet, I wish the topic and acknowledgement of pain was balanced. I wish his response didn’t feel so dismissive, that it didn’t feel like a form of comparison. And while I hope Hollywood’s next film that portrays chronic pain is given a better response, it’s not only Hollywood that needs to learn this lesson. It starts with us, the audience, to remember that we’re not the only ones hurting, to remember that pain is all around us – and not just in us. It’s up to us to show compassion to others, to offer a listening ear, and to show that we care when others take the risk in opening up to us.

Image provided by the Downsizing Facebook page

Originally published: December 28, 2017
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