perceptions, a personal epiphany

The other day I was having some dental work done–scaling and root planing–and my hygienist said, “You’re really one tough chick.” And, “You have a very high tolerance to pain.”

I was actively dozing when she said the latter, so I went, “Huh?” and had her repeat it.  Even when I was sure I had heard her correctly, I was confused because I wasn’t feeling any pain.

Later when I was driving to another, much dreaded, appointment, a thought came to me.  Maybe that is a high tolerance to pain.

All my life I have assumed that people with high tolerances–to whatever–were just iron people who felt things the same way I do but somehow, via some inner strength, they just took it, and that if I were a good enough person, a brave enough person, a strong enough person, a person with enough willpower, I could ironman it through those same experiences.

If I were strong enough, I could tough it out through the fear, the anxiety, the pain. That I should be able to. That everyone, or everyone over the age of 18 or so–should be able to man up, toughen up, gut it out, take it on the chin, ironman it.

Whatever you’re afraid of, whatever hurts.  Just do it.  Just deal with it.

I can’t help but feel I should have known this already, but evidently not everyone experiences fear and pain, or anything really, the same. I knew (or accepted, is there a difference?) that psychopaths don’t experience fear or guilt or empathy the same way other people do.

But now I believe there are not just two levels, psycho and us/everybody else.

It’s all a spectrum.  More than that, a limitless assortment of spectrums. A pain spectrum, an anxiety spectrum, everything a person could possibly experience lies along a spectrum of perspective.

I’m not trying to take away from firefighters who race into burning buildings to save others. But I’m guessing they are not as afraid as others or they would choose some other line of work. This doesn’t lessen what they do at all.  Their stakes are as high as anyone’s, the risk of serious injury or death is the same whether they perceive the risk or not.

So yes, I am throwing out that definition of courage that says, “Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is feeling the fear and doing it anyway.” I am redefining it as, “Courage is knowing the risk and doing it anyway.”

(Feeling the fear and doing it anyway is something far beyond courage, and only each person can know for him/herself what overcoming it cost.)

So we (I) don’t know and can’t know and should stop pretending that we (I) know how other people experience their experiences, and stop judging them based on our (my) perspectives. Others are living inside their own perspectives, which are almost certainly different than ours (mine).

Anyway, that is what I learned at the dentist this week and wanted to share.

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