The Unbearable Discomfort of Feeling

written by Lisa Dorsey
Madison, CT   
Jan 26, 2021

Once upon a time in a land far away, I was at the gym early one weekday morning. Picture:

Pre-dawn Manhattan, the height of morning rush hour at the gym. Middle of winter. Fluorescent lights are shining, upbeat music is blaring. I'm standing with my trainer in front of the big bay windows facing Upper Broadway, a dumbbell in each hand, squatting. Slow, uncomfortable, sweaty squats.

After a few reps, my trainer notices that every time I reach a certain point in my range of motion, I wince.

“Is that weight too heavy?” she asks.

Nope, I choke out and continue squatting.

She stares at me intently for another few seconds, then asks, “Does something hurt? You're making a face like something hurts.”

Lost in effort, barely considering the words coming out of my mouth, I uttered my pure truth:

"I don't know... does it?" I paused. Waited for her answer.

Our eyes met then, each searching the other's face for the answer, the joke, the punchline. And we collapsed into laughter. You asked me if I hurt and I asked you to tell me! We joked about the early hour, coffee depletion syndrome.

What I didn't know then, but I do know now, is that I was less than six months away from having total hip replacement surgery. The pain and stiffness I was experiencing in my leg was referred pain: pain that's not localized to the site of its cause, but is instead referring from a distant site.

Turns out the real answer was, Yes. It hurts.

We finished our workout, I bundled up in my winter layers and picked up a coffee, as usual, on the walk from the gym back to my apartment. From there the day should have kicked along like any other.

But it didn't.

She'd asked me if my body hurt, and I genuinely didn't know.

I've come to accept that most of life's big realizations come at truly mundane moments. Filling the car with gas, folding laundry. That's what happened that day: I was staring out the window watching the pretty headlights and taillights on Broadway on a normal winter morning when a big truth bomb was dropped on me.

Like all truth bombs, my mind wouldn't stop wandering back to it.

I'd had to stop and think, squinting in the fluorescent corner of the gym as though I'd find the answer to her question in the ugly beige dropped-tile ceiling. It had taken all my concentration and a good twenty seconds to hear my own inner voice clearly enough to respond, Yeah. I guess it does kind of hurt.

Why does this matter, you're wondering?

It matters because feeling things—whether they are physical or emotional; good or awful; eagerly anticipated or horribly out of the blue things—feeling is an enormous part of the job of being human. Isn't it?

We're engineered to feel. Our bodies are perfect kinesthetic ecosystems. We each arrive into the world with physical and psychological agency for more feeling than any language can adequately affix words to.

You see where I'm going with this.

If you don't know that your hip is hurting, will you know when you're feeling sad?

Or successful?

I'm not here to judge. You do you.

But think about it:

How are you feeling?