“This sort of thing is all very well in novels, but in reality, it can prove very uncomfortable.” The Dowager Countess, Downton Abbey
Four of my friends have had surgeries in the past few weeks. A couple others have lost their fathers. I suppose it’s the age I am at. I tell them I will pray for them, because – what else can you do? And once I say those words, I have to follow through. So I’ve had to start writing down a “prayer list,” – something I haven’t done in years, just to remember them all. Sometimes I include them in the nightly prayers that Audrey and I say, slipping a name in without explaining to her in any detail. Other times it’s random moments throughout the day (often driving) when they come to mind; I visualize a friend in her hospital gown and put myself into her place for a moment, invoking only wordless, tear-prayers. Sometimes it’s just speaking out a name into the silence, and nothing more. Speaking and naming though, are powerful things. I see those spoken, floating letters in front of me, held by the silence around them, like a life raft.
I found, after I had suffered rather publicly, both because my husband was well- known in the music industry and also because I publicly blogged about my grieving process, people began to share their own sufferings with me in one of two ways. First, there were those friends that wanted to connect and empathize, but also I think, felt rather guilty that they could not. They talked about their own problems and ailments, magnifying usually small things into life-threatening illnesses or dilemmas. They told stories about friends and cousin’s sister’s friends who had suffered some other tragedy or difficulty. Sometimes they “understood” because something similar “almost happened to them,” but it didn’t. I was left to nod my head and thank them for coming by. Luckily, there weren’t too many of these.
The latter group did the opposite- they minimized their own pain and problems because they felt it could not compare with what I was going through at the time. Though initially, I really had nothing to offer anyone, after a while it did get lonesome for me always sharing my own pain and receiving, never getting to listen or encourage- something I’d formerly been in the habit of doing. It altered the dynamics of my friendships, and some of them could not recover. So, I suppose I am glad that people are sharing their own pain and problems with me again. I send them packages with lavender lotion and my favorite tea. I go to their apartments with toys for their kids the way people used to come to mine with presents for Audrey.
There was and is a third set of people who respond to my pain very differently. Interestingly enough, these are the strangers. I meet them in all manner of circumstance, small talk ensues, eventually they ask enough questions that this part of my story reveals itself. I’ve been amazed at how instantly with that information, small talk evolves to profound talk. The mother of another child at my daughter’s swim lesson shares with me that she isn’t having a second child yet because of her debilitating anxiety. The guy running the car wash tells me while I wait for my car that he went through a very difficult time losing a few people that were close to him, started drinking and got multiple DUI’s. His girlfriend of many years left him, and then he started reading the Bible and came to help his friend with the car wash and start over. The middle-aged Chinese woman I sat next to in the jury duty waiting room tells me her own story of immigrating here, starting her sushi restaurant, and now caring daily for her ailing mother in law.
What to do with these stories. What is the best way we can respond to those in pain? I wrote a post on my old blog entitled, “Compassion versus Pity,” and I do think there are some valuable points made there- particularly in the Henri Nowen quote that says,
“Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.”
But having had a few more years to think on this now, I understand Nowen’s quote better. To enter into the confusion and brokenness of others, we admit that we don’t understand their pain. Saying, “I can imagine what you’re going through,” because this or that happened to you, isn’t truthful or a comfort. A friend has often said to me, “Julia…I can’t imagine…” These are the truthful words. Women often complain that when they share something, men just try to solve the problem, when what the women want is just empathy and compassion. But in the same way, women often try to empathize and immediately think of something similar they’ve been through, in a way that isn’t always helpful. While I used to see my own ability to feel others’ pain deeply as a gift, I now see it more as an emotion that needs to be managed as any other. To come alongside someone in their suffering means to say, “I can’t imagine,” and “I don’t know either why this happened to you, but I will bear witness to your pain.” This is the human condition Nowen speaks of.
I also don’t think one can compare pains, or that one person’s suffering is definitively any worse than another’s. Elizabeth Elliot, a missionary widowed three times in her life, says in this worth watching series on suffering, that she doesn’t think of herself as someone who has suffered a lot. She mentions a friend who is a paraplegic and a couple who, having had one child with spina bifida- has a second with the same diagnosis. Jerry Sittser, the theology professor and writer I quoted in my last post, a man who lost a mother, daughter, and wife in one instant, speaks to the same point as Elliot. “I believed then, as I do now, that our loss was no more difficult than the losses many others have experienced, nor was our pain any more acute.” He continues, “For example, I never had to face rejection; I never had to care for a loved one with permanent disabilities; I never had to absorb one loss after another…Taken as a whole, my story has been quite good.” These are two wise, older people who have truly suffered, acknowledging that they don’t see their suffering as more painful or more sanctifying than any other’s. There is much wisdom here.
I recently read a list posted on 23 emotions people feel but can’t explain or put into words. One of those was “sonder: the realization that each passerby has a life as vivid and complex as your own.” My childhood best friend was talking about this concept when we were just children- telling me she often felt it when she drove past lit windows at night, and caught just a glimpse of another family’s life. I have always remembered her telling me this and will be happy to tell her there’s a word for that! Writer Jeffrey Eugenides says it this way,
I was thinking how amazing it was that the world contained so many lives. Out in these streets people were embroiled in a thousand different matters, money problems, love problems, school problems. People were falling in love, getting married, going to drug rehab, learning how to ice-skate, getting bifocals, studying for exams, trying on clothes, getting their hair-cut and getting born.
And in some houses people were getting old and sick and were dying, leaving others to grieve. It was happening all the time, unnoticed, and it was the thing that really mattered.
Looking at our lives in this context, we can grasp that every person’s life, and pain is as “vivid and complex as our own.” Again, that doesn’t mean we know exactly the way they feel because we’ve suffered in a similarly complex way. What it means is that you see their suffering as unique to them, but real like yours, and connected because suffering is a shared part of the human condition. This paradox is at the heart of grief- its universality and its one-of-a kind quality existing at once. I can’t remember the source unfortunately, but I read about a story in which every person was able to put their pains and problems in a huge pot, and then, if they wished, they could choose someone else’s. Every single person ended up taking their own back. This resonated deeply with me the way only story can. I understood that the story unfolding in my life was my story, and there is something of comfort acknowledging this.
So, we enter into another’s pain without comparison, without “I can imagine’s,” and without answers. It can all leave you feeling very helpless, very human- something we fight hard not to feel.
But there are still things that can be done.
We pray and make prayer lists. Not to control, but to submit. Harold Kushner, in his book “Conquering Fear,” quotes theologian Martin Buber describing prayer this way, “When we pray, we don’t ask God for anything. We ask God for God. We invite God into our lives, so that the actions we take will be guided by a sense of God’s presence.” Kushner himself, when asked by a reporter about a study that showed prayer did not change the outcome for sick people in hospitals, replied, “God’s job is to make sick people brave.” So, we pray. We speak those floating letters of names out into the silence.
We visit. We bring whatever small things we can offer. On my visit to a friend recovering from surgery yesterday, I decide to bring, along with her requested flagel and latte, a few books. Words. I feel a bit silly putting them into a large reusable grocery bag before I leave, but it’s what I have: a devotional by Madeline L’Engle called “Glimpses of Grace,” “The Inner Voice of Love” by Henri Nowen, and the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz. I sit beside her and flip through with nothing chosen beforehand, hoping to find something nourishing. I read. “This summer is not the first time I have walked through the place of excrement and found love’s mansion there. Indeed, we are more likely to find it in the place of excrement than in the sterile places. God comes where there is pain and brokenness, waiting to heal, even if the healing is not the physical one we hope for.” (Madeline L’engle) After a few passages, I go to put it back in my bag. She asks for me to continue.
In both homes I’ve visited, I find myself opening their window blinds and curtains to let in as much light as possible. Yesterday, I Swiffer the floors. My friend says she feels so much better now that she knows the floors are clean.
I tend to their many vases of flowers at their request, dumping the putrid green and brown water into their sinks. I fill them with fresh water, throw out those blooms that are past their prime, cut the remaining stems on a slant, and place them back in their vases. They will last a few more days.