Sunday, November 6, 2011

Redefining Brutal

Not my photo, not my mouth...
I don't remember much from the day my wisdom teeth were "pulled" -- a very gentle way to describe what was apparently a more violent process -- but I do remember the woman who came to me afterwards to ask me to rate my pain on a scale of 0-10, with 0 being no pain and 10 describing the worst.

I'd just awakened from the anesthesia and was still pretty fuzzy, so it took a few moments to assemble my thoughts. The 0-10 scale was the tool at hand, so I pondered what a "10" might feel like. My first mental image involved a motorcycle crash at freeway speeds with no special protective gear. Hmmm -- my whole head hurt something awful, and in ways I hadn't even realized were possible, but it was way better than my imagination of a 10 on the pain scale. (Then I wondered -- is this a logarithmic scale? a linear one? or a different scale I'm not thinking of because my brain feels like it is filled with a viscous ooze? Eventually it dawned on me that the gal asking me for a number was not thinking of logarithmic vs. linear scales; she just wanted a number to write in my chart.)  I settled on a 6.

Six? she asked. Yes, I responded -- on a scale of 0-10, my pain in that moment was a 6. She appeared disappointed and left. We repeated the interaction several more times as she returned to assess my pain; it still really hurt quite a lot, so I kept naming it a 6. She kept writing that down and leaving. Finally she told me that, as part of the pain study I'd signed up for, they were waiting for my pain to reach the level of 7 before giving the medication.  And, having given that information, she asked again: Are you sure it's a six, and not a seven? Arggh. Of course I was sure. I'd thought this through, and it was nothing like the worst pain I could imagine, and trying to manipulate the data wasn't going to make it any better. Sheesh.

I told this story to Mark, and he chuckled understandingly. Years later, we still talk about "establishing the scale" -- shorthand for recognizing the range of possibilities and describing a situation's relative place within that range.

That came to mind today when I read a newspaper headline:
2012 Presidential Race Likely to be Close, Tough, Maybe Brutal

Brutal? Really? It may be time to establish the scale. On election day in 2008, one of my friends commented with grateful seriousness on the peacefulness of the voting process in this country. Yes, there had been debates and mud-slinging and such, but at the end of the day, we could be pretty sure that all the people listed on the ballot would go home alive. There are places around the world where that isn't true, where those not elected may be seen as a threat to power and even eliminated completely.

When we elect a president in 2012, it may very well be a close, tough race. But when I establish the scale of possibilities, it is nowhere near "brutal."

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