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Becoming Numb to the Pain

“The blood of too many, dissolving the very stain.” ― Jhumpa Lahiri

By Laura S. Veira-Ramirez
Laura S. Veira-Ramírez ’20, a Crimson editorial editor, is a joint concentrator in History and Literature and Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

This past August, I was involved in the First-Year Urban Program, as I have been for the past three years. As the leaders prepared for the “FUPpies” to arrive on campus, we had a slot for “leader family” bonding in small groups.

To get to know each other better, we were supposed to do “life mapping.” We drew diagrams for critical moments in our lives (up to that point) that we were going to share at the end. We shared stories that consisted of a lot of pain, but my friend, who I had known for years, and I laughed together at experiences we had shared in a way that was probably confusing to the other people in our group who didn’t know us well.

“Oh, no. I was definitely crying and yelling when that happened in real life,” my friend acknowledged after we were all done.

“Of course. Me too. I think it just gets easier when you practice this so much,” I agreed.

I’ve been praised for so long for my strength. I’ve been praised for the countless times I’ve gotten up after falling down. I surprise myself when I no longer cry about experiences that once caused me so much pain. When I can bring them up casually in conversation.

As people in marginalized communities, we learn to laugh off our oppressions and lived struggles as a way of coping with the pain. This is how we form communities. We do this for a reason, though it seems to happen naturally. We make jokes with people of similar identities that don’t work the same with outsiders. It becomes a break from the tension and serious conversations we usually see around these sensitive topics.

We have become submerged in identity politics and out of it comes the expectation to speak on behalf of the communities we belong to. We are taught that we need people to sympathize, and the onus is on us to make sure our words carry meaning. But we can’t do that well if we are shaking and crying on a panel or news interview. I’ve realized how much this pattern manifests itself in the world we live in now, as it demands that we present our pain in a way that is palatable.

With the “life mapping” activity came the realization of how much we can become desensitized to our own pain through these efforts of standing up for ourselves. In a previous article, I mentioned how sharing my story around my immigration status helped me to let go of some of the pain each time. I attribute this mostly to my status because that is the story I get asked for the most.

I saw this pattern clearly ingrained in the immigration system itself when I worked with women seeking asylum this past summer. I ran through their declarations with them to make sure we were making a strong-enough claim to prove that they had a credible fear of returning to their home countries. The U.S. demanded that they spill their trauma, mostly cases of sexual assault and gang violence, into the organized structure of a legal case file. Extremely counterintuitively, they had to relive their pain in order to get a semblance of peace through an asylum that was not guaranteed.

These cases then go to immigration courts, where their stories are read by immigration judges who are no longer surprised by the words they’ve seen before them many times. That’s when you notice that it is not only us who grow numb to our own pain, but also people looking in.

People are put on display to be viewed by members of their own communities as well as outsiders. We see news covering recent attacks on our own communities and it no longer surprises us. Outsiders see the news and they no longer care, if they ever did at all. Stories of violence and injustice become the norm as they flood our feed. We see news of school shootings, police violence, and sexual assault, and we are no longer outraged.

But if we are becoming desensitized to our own pain, what could that mean for outsiders in their ease of ignoring it and even perpetuating it? What does this mean for us when we only have enough energy to concern ourselves with how to deal with the pain and not with where it is coming from?

Laura S. Veira-Ramírez ’20, a Crimson editorial editor, is a joint concentrator in History and Literature and Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

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