When my friend Ellen and I met for coffee recently, I learned that she too has back problems. I hadn’t known. Sharing our physical issues, as older women friends tend to do when we get together (another friend calls this practice “organ recitals”),  made me feel less alone with mine.

This aching back of mine just won’t go away. It’s with me wherever I go now. Like a difficult, big, old dog, I take it on daily walks (whether it’s up to it or not); it won’t allow me to sit still for long stretches (forget airline travel); and it disturbs my sleep. But, like it or not, I’m attached to this old dog. I can’t get rid of it.

It’s something of a cliché, I know, but old bods – like old cars that have spent their lives whizzing up and down all sorts of roads and not cosseted in cozy garages – begin to break down. Yes, a good mechanic [doctor] might be able to do some impressive repairs, but let’s face it: These mechanisms weren’t meant to last forever.

I’ve been doing a little research lately, and I’ve learned that an estimated 10 percent of the world’s population suffers from pain in the lower back. To quote a recent study, “one in ten people around the world are afflicted with LBP [lower back pain], making it the world’s leading cause of disability.” This finding was based on over one hundred studies of 780 cases in more than eighty countries.

In other words, at any given time, hundreds of millions of people worldwide are suffering from LBP. The majority of those people are adult women.

Knowing this now, I really feel less alone.

Oh, and here’s another jolly tidbit I gleaned from my research: Back pain is the most common cause of pain-related suicide, followed by the pain related to cancer and arthritis ( ).

But I digress.

The point of this post is not, ultimately, painful back stories but rather the value of backstories. To borrow from the literary use of the term “backstory” and apply it to the everyday, I mean those stories about a person’s past that impact their present lives. These are stories we may never learn about another person unless they care to share them and we care enough to listen.

Doctors, lawyers, therapists, counsellors, and some teachers (I’m thinking especially of Creative Writing teachers), learn of others’ backstories professionally. Again I remember the backstories of young female recovering addicts (when I was, briefly, an alcohol and drug abuse counsellor in New Mexico) who had turned to illicit drugs to dull the unbearable pain and shame of their childhood sexual molestation. And how can I forget the heart-wrenching backstories shared by my older Creative Nonfiction writing students at UNM-Taos who were working on writing their memoirs?

Living in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, now as a retired person, I observe my many fellow-expat retirees the way I observe the beautiful, stark, exterior architecture of this city, wondering as I pass by: What’s behind those facades? We all, for the most part, came from somewhere else, after having lived full lives elsewhere. What brought us here? I’d like to know everyone’s backstory.

A typical street scene in San Miguel’s centro that begs the question: What’s behind those enigmatic facades?
Sometimes what one finds behind the front door is a vacant lot; but more often, it’s a lovely courtyard filled with color, beauty, light, and life.

As with the literary device, backstories provide fuller character development, more understanding, and, I would add, more compassion on the part of the reader or listener.

Compassion is the key word here, I think. Compassion as an antidote to the competitiveness that seems to be baked in to the norteamericano ethos. Imagine if by learning each other’s backstories – oh, and back stories, too, while we’re at it – we, as caring, trusting, noncompetitive friends, gained more compassion for one another. Many more of us certainly would feel less alone.