Everyone loves a good underdog story. We relish when tragedy strikes a worthy hero down, and he gets back up. When a nobody born to dire circumstance overcomes the odds to become a success, we rejoice. We love to watch resurrection in process; to see the phoenix rise from the ashes. But I’ve begun to suspect that our culture’s constant thirst for a fairy-tale ending is concealing a deep-rooted discomfort with embracing real suffering.
When I was 12 years old, a little boy I babysat died. He ran into the middle of the street without looking, and in front of his mother’s eyes was hit by an SUV. I remember a few weeks later at church, sitting a couple rows behind his parents and sisters and seeing his mother sobbing inconsolably. I felt useless. What could I offer her that would give her solace?
When I succeeded in escaping an abusive relationship last year, I was amazed to see how many of those around me didn’t want to hear about it. You could see it in the way their eyes slipped away from mine or when I brought it up even casually, how they went silent and a few moments later changed the subject. Did they think I was being overdramatic? Were they judging me for embarking on the relationship in the first place? My entire life I’ve relied on my friends to be sounding boards for me, and I was stunned to find something I so badly needed to discuss un-discussable. Pain is a formative experience. It changes us and shapes us, yet we have a social agreement to pretend it does not exist in the public eye.
What I’ve noticed is that our socially acceptable narratives tend to value tragedy and pain only as a means to an end. Most of us are uncomfortable with the most dependable of facts: the inevitability of human suffering. This avoidance is a luxury not afforded to certain pockets of the world, pockets where suffering resides on every street and in front of each pair of eyes, where it so dominates the daily existence that grappling with it is expected and necessary. In our country, we hide suffering, only to parade it out for charity functions.
So, why is it that we find suffering so uncomfortable? Is it personal cowardice, discomfort, selfishness? Perhaps these vices alone are the culprits. What does it mean to be “at a loss for words”? Does it mean the words are truly lost, or are we too lazy to find them?
The Bravery to Share Our Pain
I consciously try to be available and empathetic when true tragedy strikes, I do. But I also have my moments of failure. I understand when a friend tells me, “I don’t know what to say,” in response to something I’m going through because none of us do. Our modern world, despite harboring so much sorrow, has failed to equip us with the understanding of how common suffering really is. We pretend it doesn’t exist. We don’t know what to say because we were not taught what to say.
Fear seizes opportunities in these moments. There is fear in the heart of the confessor that others will not care—that they will think we are overreacting, that we are only asking for pity. There is fear in the hearer that we will say the wrong thing—a fear that by hearing of the tribulation, it’s now a burden in our life or a reality we, too, might face.
But it is, in fact, brave to share your pain with those around you. For too long, pity has been an ugly, hidden emotion. If we should seek pity, we’re assigned victim complexes; we’re seen as someone who blames the world for our problems. But it’s normal to seek pity when your situation is pitiable. It is necessary to seek comfort for pain.
The world we live in often denies us even this. Of course, it is good to strive to rise above our circumstances. But rising above is difficult without a period of grieving. Demanding ourselves to “keep it together” has created a culture of shame when it comes to acknowledging pain. Etiquette has determined the boundaries of our grief. How often have you noticed a suffering person apologize for his or her own sorrow?
Learning to Accept Pain
It’s not uncommon for Americans to qualify friendships and relationships in terms of those who were there for us when we needed it. We trust friends who have walked with us through our trials. Many of my relationships shifted in the wake of my own suffering. It’s tragic to have additional casualties—lessened bonds and fraught friendships—in times of grief.
So, how do we prevent this? How do we begin to display empathy consciously? Something I have begun to actively say to my friends is, “I am comfortable with discussing your pain. Speak about it to me.” It’s strange to say so boldly, but I believe that the statement helps, especially to fill the black hole of silence that wells up after a confession of anguish. Questions are frequently seen as neutral responses, as a way to show interest without judgment. But keep in mind, an inquiry displays curiosity, not empathy. One good question I have heard, however, is, “How can I support you during this?” The most important thing is just to listen and not look away from the other’s pain. If we can become comfortable with discomfort, if we can replace indifference with compassion, we can ease each other’s burdens.
I realize now that there were things I could have done when I was young to comfort that grieving mother at church. There are things I can still do. I still see her regularly, and I’m still friends with her daughters. Every time I can, I bring up her son when we talk, and it strikes me each time how palpable the relief is in her eyes. I want her to know that I still remember him. People don’t mention old griefs or tragedies because they assume the griever doesn’t want to be reminded. But often they do. They do want to be reminded, or rather, they want to see that they are not alone in remembering. They want their pain acknowledged; they want their pain shared. Because when we carry pain together, it becomes easier to bear.
Photo Credit: Ben Giesbrecht