Pain and Pedagogy

We have been studying abortion recently in my Bioethics class, and we’ve been doing so at the same time that we’re studying Buddhism in my Asian Religions course. The abortion unit has been challenging at times: many of the students learned for the first time about how an abortion is performed (at various stages of the pregnancy). We also read a moving article from New York magazine that let over two dozen women tell the stories of their abortion experiences. We needed to do both of these things, even though they brought real pain to my students (and to me).

This abortion unit in particular has had me thinking about a pedagogy that makes room for pain. I’ve thought as well about King Shuddodhana, the father of Siddhartha Gautama, the future Buddha. Wishing to prevent his son from becoming a world-renouncer, the King set about creating a world for his son that was free from suffering and pain. Young Siddhartha had every wondrous thing he desired – good food, good clothing, good dancing ladies (quite a few, according to some accounts) – and lived a life of luxury and privilege that often has resonance with more than a few of my private school students who hear his story.

Yet his father’s efforts were ultimately for naught: Prince Siddhartha did one day journey outside the palace walls, and there he saw the famous four sights: an elderly person, a sick person, a dead person, and a wandering ascetic. The first three inspired a deep sense of dissatisfaction with the world and its ephemeral pleasures; the fourth inspired Siddhartha to leave behind the palace, his wife, their newly-born child, his grieving parents – all in an effort to understand the nature of reality.

Things worked out just fine for Siddhartha, so that’s not my concern. Rather, I’m trying to think through the best way to approach these issues – aging, sickness, and death – with my students. The issue of abortion is, most likely, one that some of them have already faced, either in their own immediate relationships with a partner, or with their friends. And it’s certainly something that they will continue to face, both in college and beyond. More than almost anything, I want my students to live meaningful lives. I also don’t want them to feel pain. But I can’t be like Siddhartha’s father and try to shield them from too much.

Sometimes class needs to be in the minor key. I’m okay with that. But I’m trying to figure out ways to help create a space in which students can listen to each other, ask questions, encounter challenging material. I also want the classroom to be an open and safe enough space that students can feel pain. This pain is part of being a human being, and it’s certainly a feature of many of the stories of women in the article: pain from being the victim of sexual assault or rape that resulted in pregnancy; pain from choosing to terminate a pregnancy when they learned about medical complications for the fetus; pain at the realization that they were not able to care for a child at this stage of their lives.

The stories are not only of pain, of course. Often they are more nuanced. One woman writes, in relation to a late-term abortion that she had to fly across the country for: “I didn’t have relief until my next daughter was born. Now we have three living children. That doctor gave me my family.”

More than anything, I think, my wish is for the classroom to be a place where it’s okay to be uncertain, okay to hesitate, okay to rethink a position. I’m fortunate that this group of Bioethics students has embraced an ethos of truth-seeking conversation instead of victory-seeking debate, so there’s been a good foundation laid by us together as a class. Students have ventured tentative thoughts, ideas that are clearly in progress as they seek to make sense of the moral worth of a fetus and the duties a mother may have toward it. There is a rare kind of emotional and existential vulnerability that the students have been able to bring to class, and it has made us open enough to feel real things, and to learn difficult things about real people.

It has also reminded us of the importance of real friendship and support. As one woman noted in her interview, “There’s no room to talk about being unsure.” A place where we can be unsure, a place of uncertainty, a place of pain: while I don’t want my classroom to be that place every day, there are some days when that seems to be the most human and humane way we can relate to the lives of the people we’re learning about – and to each other.

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