Ruby seemed to have a lot of energy this morning, so I decided to take her for a walk at our favorite spot. We walked for about half an hour– me all bundled up, and Ruby wearing her nice new $45 coat (oy!).
The path was a bit slippery following yesterday’s snow storm. There was a thin layer of snow on top of another thin layer of ice. But we plodded along, me enjoying the sunlight and Ruby enjoying the way the snow had trapped the smells of everyone else who had come along.
After about twenty minutes, Ruby turned around and faced the direction we had come in (her way of signaling that she’s ready to go back to the car). I wasn’t really ready to stop walking yet, so I helped her back in the car and then set off for one last loop of the field.
But with Ruby gone, it just wasn’t the same. Suddenly, I noticed how cold I was. My hat didn’t completely cover my ears. My boots didn’t really fit. My knees hurt. It was like everything that had been tuned out by Ruby’s company had come back into focus.
The moment had clearly been lost, so I just gave up and went back to the car.
This is something I’ve often noticed over the past few years—how much better I feel when others are around.
And it can’t just be anyone. For example—I don’t want to air any dirty laundry here—it doesn’t work so well with people I’m not as comfortable with, aka certain individuals who are not exactly sympathetic about my being in pain. With them, the pain stays the way it is.
But with close friends, or beloved animals, my mind just doesn’t seem to focus on the pain as much. It’s like my mind’s eye is a camera, and having friends around presses the “zoom out” button.
I’ve been told time and time again that my nervous system focuses on the pain too much, as though it’s permanently stuck on the “zoom in” setting. I wonder if the way I feel when others are around is the way it’s supposed to be, the way it is for other people. If the deluge of sensations I got once Ruby was back in the car– hat not covering my ears; boots not fitting perfectly; knees aching slightly— was my nervous system zooming back in, and I was once again feelings things that most people wouldn’t notice.
I’ve had more than one Saturday where I limped around during the day, with either my ankle hurting, or my knee. Where I’m afraid to walk fast, or drive fast; afraid to step down off a curb.
But then I go out with my friends that night, and slowly the pain melts away. (And it’s not because I drink—I never feel like drinking when I’m already not feeling well). After a day of limping, I might find that by the end of the night I’m walking normally down the sidewalk.
I used to be embarrassed by these experiences, and felt like I needed to keep them a secret. It was too close to what people said—that I’m physically capable of doing much more than I think; that it’s all in my head.
But I can’t help the way I’m wired. Now that I’m older and a bit more secure in myself, I figure I might as well build upon what I’ve learned and use it to my own advantage.
I’m certainly not the first person to say this, but I don’t think that our contemporary, isolated society is really the best thing for human nature. We were built to stay together; to live together, to work together.
When you’re out in the wilderness, you have to be on the lookout for predators. For enemies. And for physical dangers and natural disasters. Obviously, there’s safety in numbers; all of these things are easier to deal with when there’s another person (or animal) by your side.
I think that, on some level, our perceptions of pain and bodily discomfort are tied into our overall perception of threats. Obviously, my ears being cold and my knees hurting are not as much of an immediate danger as a wild animal, but from an evolutionary perspective, cold weather and musculoskeletal injuries both have the potential to affect our chances of survival.
I think our bodies use the same “alert system” to respond to all of these different types of threats. And, with all of these threats, we are more likely to survive when we have other members of our “group” around.
It might be ok to relax a little bit and let your guard down when you’re surrounded by your “tribe,” but once you start to walk into the woods by yourself, everything is ten times more dangerous. So your nervous system must be ten times more alert.
This is why, when I put Ruby back into the car, my sensations were heightened. It’s not really that Ruby would be much help against any kind of enemy or hungry predator. It’s more about what’s happening on a neurological level; that I recognize her as a member of my “tribe.” That I am not completely alone.
One last thing I would add to this post is that, when I’m with Ruby, I have a very nurturing mindset. My own needs and discomforts are overshadowed by the needs of the creature I am taking care of, so my mind doesn’t focus on the pain as much.
From an evolutionary mindset, our ability to nurture and put the needs of another before our own developed through raising children and passing on our genes. Obviously, I’m not passing on any genetic material through Ruby, but I think if you were to put my brain in an fMRI, you would see that, when I’m caring for Ruby, I’m tapping into the same brain system.
The reason why I didn’t focus on this as much in this post is that doesn’t have as much to do with why I feel less pain when I’m with my friends. I don’t really nuture my friends (at least, not in the way I would nurture a child!) I certainly try to be a good listener, though.
I’m curious to know what you, my readers, think. Has this ever happened to you? Are there certain people, or animals, whose presence simply causes you to feel less pain? And do you agree with my evolutionary theories? Disagree? Let me know!