I suffer from “SFS.” It may or may not be hereditary or contagious, but I know my sister Rebecca who lives with us has it too. It’s quite dreadful, this “Sensitive Flower Syndrome.”
What? You haven’t ever heard of it? Well, even though it’s very common, it goes undiagnosed most of the time. How can you tell you have it? Let me give you an example:
I took my teenaged kids in for their sports’ physicals this summer, and lo and behold, they both needed booster shots. When they were little kids, I worked hard to make sure it was as pain-free as possible. On more than one occasion, my daughter carried her special Nana-made blanket with her and we wrapped her in it before the dreaded needle came out. I would be the good mom, right there to hold them and comfort them and make myself feel useful, aka: distracting myself from the shots.
This year, they are clearly too big to be wrapped in comforting blankets, or held on my lap, or comforted, so I had nothing to do to feel useful. Which is not good for me. In retrospect, perhaps I should have left the room. Instead, I had to put my head surreptitiously between my knees. I don’t like needles. At all. Even when they aren’t coming for me, they make me queasy. And I know this about myself, because I had one extraordinarily embarrassing professional moment during a hospital visit.
Hospital visits are par for the course in ministry, and for the most part, I like them. It’s an honor to sit with folk who are longing to know God is with them in the midst of their illness. Hospital rooms, hospital beds, hospital smells – None of that bothers me. But on this particular occasion, I wasn’t even in a hospital room. I was in a small family conference room as a teenager from my congregation was being taught how to give herself insulin shots. She wasn’t even sticking herself; she was sticking an orange. Next thing I knew, I was light headed and queasy and about to pass out. So much for the comforting prayerful presence of the pastor. Smelling salts, anyone?
And I think I may have passed the dreaded SFS on to my son, who infamously passed out in health class during a video presentation about……passing out. Yep. We’re tough cookies, aren’t we.
I attribute this to our strong mirror neurons and compassionate brains. Did you know that in one study, one spouse was receiving a (supposedly mild) electric shock, the pain region of the brain lit up – IN THE OTHER SPOUSE! When we see our loved ones getting hurt, our brains register it as though we are the ones getting hurt. Now, if I have a specific responsibility to comfort or ease the other’s pain, I am not overwhelmed or paralyzed or done in by my own pain. But if I’m just sitting there? I’d better look away. If you are the parent or the pastor, you don’t want to also become the patient.
But it’s a good reminder: When our brains register another’s pain, it’s a signal to our minds to step up and comfort, not succumb to our own pain, no matter how real our brain thinks that mirrored pain is.