The Thing That Bonds Us Most Is Pain


This is what I know.

It was late in that hazy hour when Saturday turns very definitely into early, early Sunday, and our night had all of the trappings of lives that were happy and carefree and invincible and very much right in the moment. That night, we ordered wine by the bottle and shared them between friends and strangers alike because at parties when you are young, everyone becomes friends. That night, we trooped from the first bar to the next one, ordered pizza and shared it with the bartender, kicked back shots like water, and giggled over confessionals, our tongues loose and eager. That night, we ran from the bar to the subway station, trying not to slip on the ice, because running will make you warm in the bitter cold, just a little, and we stood on the subway and reminisced about how wonderful life is and how great it feels to have friends, and then my friend suddenly screamed and the world went static.

Because there was a woman standing there on the tracks, as the train was a minute away from pulling into the station, and she was staring head on into the lights and the impending God only knows what.

We screamed. The whole subway station erupted with screams. For help, for the train conductor to hear us and to stop the train, for her to get out of the tracks, for people to help. People were on their knees, hands outstretched into the pit, trying to reach her, trying to grab her. People were running upstairs to call 911, to grab a station attendant, to alert someone, anyone. People were waving at the oncoming lights, trying to get the train to stop.

Mercifully, it did. Mercifully, they pulled her out and held her tight though she tried to fight free. Mercifully, we did not have to see what we were all dreading. Mercifully, she did not die.

And after it was all over, after she was taken by an ambulance to hopefully get help, after the train pulled slowly into the station, we heard people walk by, laughing to themselves. That they couldn’t deal with such antics, that they had to get the hell out of Brooklyn, that they found it somewhat strange and funny that someone would “try that.” And these were the people who truly scared me, because they had seen a person try to die, and their gut reaction was to laugh. To make it about them. Sometimes things are so uncomfortable that the only thing you know how to do is laugh — it’s a coping mechanism.

But I couldn’t laugh. Because she had stood there blankly, silently, bleakly. It felt like there was a whole world that had capsized in her very normal, very average body. Like there was something that was just gone, a place where maybe hope might have once been but very definitely wasn’t there now. Where something had snapped in her, and she decided then and there that not only was she going to try to end this thing we all call life, but that she was going to watch it happen to herself. She wasn’t going to fling herself in at the last minute. She was going to watch.

Who’s to say why she did what she did? Who knows what sets each of us off until it’s too late? To say it takes a lot for a person to lose all hope is and isn’t true. We build up scenarios in our mind, and assign weight to the things that are important to us. My fear is your despair is his anguish is her rage is their inconsolable sadness. And it is in these nuances that the things we call our bodies are animated with the stuff we call our souls, and the two combine to create the humanity that resides within us all. And this humanity is precious, and delicate, the split atom in a nitrogen bomb, and it is our duty as human beings to try to protect this precious cargo for the duration of our lives.

Sometimes, we fumble. Sometimes we fail.

But still, the body knows, and it will try to gasp for air. It will try to make its way to the surface, and it will fight us and it will try to survive. The body is an animal. Our hearts and our spirits and our souls tell the animal otherwise, but it is an animal and it will do what it needs to do to see another day.

Maybe that’s why she didn’t fling herself, or touch the third rail, or pick a subway platform that was less crowded. There were quieter stations, less people, more deserted neighborhoods. Maybe deep down, she wasn’t a person who wanted to die. Maybe her body, no matter how much her soul deserted her in that moment, wanted to be saved.

This is only my speculation, because like everyone else on the subway platform, I didn’t know her. I wouldn’t be able to say how she felt. I don’t know where she is now, and I can only hope that she is alright. I just know how I felt in reaction to what she did. We tend to only see things from our own vantage points. For a long time, our point of view is all we know, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to relate to other people, to understand where they’re coming from and how they feel. To avoid this, to wrap yourself up in a shell and not let things affect you is a way to cope, but it’s not a way to live. To live, we have to try to connect with those souls we see, the ones in our friends and family and acquaintances and even in strangers. Especially the lost ones. Because they’re not so different from you or me. Sometimes, they’re us.

My friend and I clambered off the subway later, a few stops early, because we needed fresh air and a cab and the speed of the rattling train cars made me want to cry. I watched the moon, and held my friend’s hand, her scream still ringing in my ears. If I squeezed her hand tighter, the ringing lessened a little. Still, nothing could drown out the laughter of the people who seemed to not care about the nuances and jagged edges of a trauma.

It wasn’t funny, and it wasn’t just a cry for attention or help or a dare. It takes something to recognize pain in another person, as if the cracks of our own pain and anguish tune themselves to recognize the pain that resides on another frequency. Because our own struggles and our own sorrows are the things that teach us the most about this world, and it is significant when we can actually manage to make the choice to keep going in spite of whatever life hands to us. It is the little rips and tears and cuts and scrapes that pain inflicts upon us that form who we are. The scars we earned tell our stories, and they recognize someone else who is in pain, too.

Because that night, when the world had paused and gone spectral with the looming threat of death, I was there with her in the pit. I saw the train’s lights through her eyes and I needed her to get out of there because I couldn’t handle watching the alternative. Because I wanted so very much to be alive — there was so much to live for, after all — that I wanted her to be alive, too. I wanted us all to see this through. But maybe once, I didn’t want that so much. Maybe once I was closer to where she was than where I am now. And that terrified me, too. And it was painful to acknowledge.

But it also reminded me that life is precious and these memories we make and the nights we spend together are precious and fragile and we should celebrate every last one. You cannot witness death — even the attempt of death — without your own life being changed. You cannot walk out of a trauma unchanged. Nor should you want to. Because even in that fear, we can heal and grow and cherish life together. Nothing unites us as much as pain.