I was about 14 when two of my closest friends lost their fathers and another one lost a brother, all within 12 months. Their bereavement was my first personal experience with death.
For some reason I can’t now remember (the books I read probably), I knew enough then to know I knew nothing of what they were feeling or going through, but I had no idea what to do or say to make them feel better. So when I went to see the first of my bereaved friends, I expected I’d just play things by ear and not really say much.
It turned out my not having much to say was a good thing, because it allowed something to happen that I hadn’t expected: my friend had quite a bit to say and he wanted to talk. For some reason I hadn’t considered this possibility. He told me about his father and shared some memories and talked about the pain he felt. I did say some things at a point, but I can’t even remember what: they weren’t the main thing. I do remember leaving with the sense of having made a discovery.
And the discovery was this…
People in pain have something to say.
When the other two friends lost their loved ones, this lesson proved helpful again. I learned I didn’t need to offer a ton of “encouragement,” and that simply letting people talk about their experiences and express their emotions was good for them. But my new discovery (as discoveries tend to do) opened my eyes to other things. How often people didn’t let my friends and their families be open. How their tears were met with the frequent admonition, “Don’t cry.” How, when they asked, “God, why?” they would be replied with, “Who can question God?”
And I started to wonder more than ever: if the suffering have something to say, why weren’t we letting them simply say it?
This question followed me on to medical school, to train for a profession that would bring me in repeated contact with pain and suffering. But I soon discovered another question, asked often by people in pain, from disease or from the loss of loved ones:
It’s a question that demands an explanation. “Why” is a demand for meaning. And it was the question that helped me first come to understand something medical school implied but didn’t make explicit: that a major aspect of my job as a doctor was to help people make meaning of pain. That’s what every diagnosis really is: a code for a story about what seemed random to the person in front of me. A story that helps them make sense of what’s happening, and gives them a clue to what might come next.
And, because stories are how we make meaning, that meant I had the job of helping people tell better stories about their lives. (This more so because I chose an area of medicine—mental health — where things seem even harder to explain.)
And in the course of this storytelling work, I’ve become ever more convinced there’s something very wrong with the stories we tell about pain.
Our instinctive response to suffering, in ourselves or others, is to attempt to explain it. But pain and suffering often defy explanation, because they a threaten whatever stories we had told ourselves about the world we live in and how it works.
- Death yanks away people who were always there.
- Rape intrudes upon the closest physical space a person had always inhabited as their own.
- Betrayal threatens faith in people, sometimes for life.
- Natural disasters indicate that the very earth under our feet is volatile and treacherous, not to be depended on.
How do we then respond? What do we do when the stories we believed about life and our world fail us?
We have three options.
And all three apply whether the pain we’re responding to is our own or someone else’s.
- We may enlarge our stories to include this new reality. This can be very healthy, because often it’s not so much that our stories are wrong as that they’re incomplete. Pain can be a chance to enlarge our stories, and in doing so, to enlarge our humanity. And this is also why people who’ve experienced great pain can sometimes be the most large-hearted people.
- We may tell ourselves new stories. this can be helpful or not, depending on what the new stories are. Changing from trusting people to believing that everyone is bad is an example of this.
- We may refuse to accept what is before us. Sometimes — and more often than we like to admit — we simply hold on to our stories and refuse to accept the existence of this thing that doesn’t fit. An example is the strange phenomenon of parents whose kids have been raped simply refusing to accept it — it’s simply too much to take.
Strange as this last approach might seem, it has the appeal of being actually less painful. But it’s a sure way to become a smaller person. It feels easier, but it costs far more in the end. And it is particularly important because, like I said, we use it more than we like to admit.
How can I say that, do you wonder?
Well, when we respond to people in pain by talking at them instead of listening, aren’t we really reinforcing our own stories?
When we shrink from their questions, aren’t we really shrinking from the threat those questions present to our precious stories?
In offering them “comfort,” aren’t we really comforting ourselves, soothing our threatened stories and our raised hackles and assuring ourselves we are still safe?
And when we react so primally to the possibility of unexplained suffering , isn’t it because we cannot tolerate that any suffering should go unexplained? Because that would mean anyone (including us — gasp!) is at risk, and we simply cannot have that. We therefore almost compulsively seek to explain their pain, even if it means blaming them. No price is apparently too high to pay to ensure that no suffering goes unexplained.
But in diminishing the suffering of another, so we can keep telling ourselves our stories, don’t we really diminish ourselves?
In refusing to face another’s pain, aren’t we impairing our own capacity to be human? Pain, whether ours or others’, can be either the point from which we grow — or the place we started to become smaller. Either way, it won’t leave us the same.
That’s what we’re really afraid of, right?