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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Invisible Pain

Invisible Pain

By Dr. Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

On September 11, 2001, I stood in a classroom with teacher Sandra Miner, officers Kasey and Mike from the local police department, and around 25 high school students, watching the unthinkable on television. 

Shortly thereafter, I had the difficult responsibility to speak to an entire school’s student body regarding the horrific events that transpired, with the hope of contextualizing the fear and apprehension that was widespread. 

I did my best.

At the conclusion of my remarks, students filed past the platform upon which I stood.  I heard one young man, “John,” say quietly to another as they exited, “Who gives a [expletive] about the people in New York, anyway!?!” 

I could have responded but did not. 

I sensed invisible pain.

In working with John for the next few years, I realized that his insensitive remarks were indicative of much deeper scars … an invisible pain from which I do not believe he has ever fully recovered. 

Over the years as a school leader, I became intuitive in recognizing the signs of invisible pain in others.  It is aptly named, innocuously influencing some to believe, “Life sucks … then we die.” 

Do you ever see this in the eyes of your students or their families? 

I have. 

Over the years, I found that invisible pain is often advertised by errant comments, counterintuitive behavior, and of course … silence.  Rarely does it present itself through healthy, authentic disclosure.  Rarely does it ask directly for relief.

As we ready ourselves for the holiday season, let us be mindful of the invisible pain that exists in some we serve – especially that borne of society’s twistedness.  Some of our children have abhorrent circumstances. Staff too.  Their invisible pain is exacerbated when others appear more joyful or superficially merry.

The difficult part in all of this is that once we identify invisible pain as educators, we really cannot make it go away.  Sure, we can write a check or offer a gift.  We can sympathize or empathize.  What we cannot do is fix lives, and that is most distressing.  I want to fix lives.  Always have.

Short of offering a fix, however, we as educators, colleagues, and friends CAN provide something …  Hope. 

We can do this through our own unconditional positive regard for those who push others away.  We can also provide functional adult behavior from which students and families can learn and emulate, amidst the cafeteria plan of dysfunction that defines many of their lives.

Above all, we can provide the intellectual and socio-emotional equivalent of the physical therapy needed to help others work through the pain and improve their lives.  We provide the equipment and regimen each day in the form of an education and fellowship.

I realize this week that I may have cast a cloud over the mirth and merriment of school holiday programs, the singing of songs, and the trading of gifts.  It’s just that during these seasonal events [even today while watching two school holiday programs], I have always peered beyond the forest to spot a sprig -- a forlorn look or a bit of quietness in someone, an indicator of something that I desperately wanted to help fix, but instead could only influence modestly through the leadership and kindness I provide.

Can you spot a sprig?

One of my Principal Interns shared a quote with me this week from a school she visited.  I’ll end with it, hoping that you will share it as well with someone deserving.

 “Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering ‘it will be happier’…”

Alfred Tennyson. 


Dr. Ryan Donlan is deeply interesting in the human condition and strives to encourage educators to be mindful of such and to “forgive others in advance.”  Please feel free to contact him at anytime at (812) 237-8624 or at 

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