What does pain have to do with econ? Oh, everything

Health Clinic

Dr. Jim Spears speaks with Sarah Ittner, a New York-based actor, at the Actors Fund's Al Hirschfeld Free Health Clinic in New York City.

A pain clinic is a strange place to think about economics.

And to be honest, I wasn’t at the time. I was thinking of myself. My abdomen, freshly scarred from two surgeries to remove endometriosis. My pants, which didn’t fit. The pain and numbness that ran down my right leg. My hand, which wouldn’t hold a pen. I’m a reporter. I have to hold a pen.

The GW Pain Center was on my road back.

The waiting room was full of people with their own pain. Diabetics who’d lost a limb. Older men and women in wheelchairs. Restless kids dragged along, too loud for the small, tense space. Veterans willing themselves to walk a few steps, knowing a punishing set of parallel bars and weights was just inside the clinic doors.

We were not always kind to one another. How can you prioritize one person’s pain over another? Is my set of stairs worth more than your heavy purse? Does your 7 on the 1-10 scale look anything like mine?

Ruth Graham wrote a spectacular story in the Boston Globe about how pain, and our subjective responses to it, can exacerbate inequality. I feel like I saw this a million times over. The skeptical eyebrow at a patient, sometimes me. Were they seeking drugs? Really hurting? How do you know?

I’ve been thinking about pain a lot as we build our new show, Marketplace Weekend. In part because my experience was so formative to who I am now, both physically and emotionally. But more because of pain’s subjective nature. And the necessity to recognize that no matter what you’re experiencing, someone else is living a different experience. Even if you can’t quite grasp it.

But you can ask. And that, to me, is the essence of reporting.

How are you? What was that like? Tell me how it felt.

The author Leslie Jamison wrote a gorgeous and searing book, "The Empathy Exams." I recommend the whole thing, but the first essay, on her time making money as a medical actor, just nails this. “Empathy isn’t just listening,” she writes, “it’s asking the questions that need to be listened to.”

Or even if I’m stumbling around and stabbing at the wrong questions.

“Empathy requires knowing you know nothing.”

That’s how it is with money, too. It pushes you, shapes you. Your 1-10 scale of losing a job is utterly different from mine. That framed first dollar over the bar? Tell me why it’s special.

Our show certainly won’t be perfect, and there will be times when we know nothing. But we’ll aim to ask, with humor, curiosity, and, I hope, empathy.

About the author

Lizzie O'Leary is the new host of Marketplace Weekend.

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