It’s really uncomfortable to sit with someone else’s pain. I don’t like feeling helpless. I ache to fix, and when I can’t, I squirm. I think about the days I used to spend in a Buddhist temple, trying to figure out how to sit and breathe – two things I thought I already knew how to do. In fact, I was terrible at staying in my body while my buttocks slowly went numb and my diaphragm ached from pushing in and out. My mind could not deal with the stillness and would quickly begin flipping through my Rolodex of memories for problems to obsess over. I’m this way with the immutable reality of other people’s pain. Scroll through any Facebook thread and you’ll see I’m not alone.
After a recent conversation, in which I shared some emotional issues I’ve been struggling with, a friend pointed out, “Did you notice how everyone just responded to your pain by sharing their own?” With that simple observation, she clarified for me exactly why I’d been left feeling less than validated. It seems like a perfectly compassionate response, doesn’t it? Someone shares his or her pain and you open up and share yours. We commune as humans and have a wonderful, hand holding, kumbaya moment, right? Except that it doesn’t work that way.
I call it the Show And Tell reaction, otherwise known as “Me, too! Me, too!” Syndrome. You’ve shown me your pain, great. Now it’s my turn to stand in front of the class. Let me distract myself from your pain, which may be crushing and awful. I can’t think about your grief or your debilitating hurt or your monolithic financial struggle because I can’t offer a solution and everything in me is wired to try to alleviate this problem. So, I’m going to try to relate to you by searching for a similar experience, and I’m going to distract myself by thinking about my own pain. I might not be able to solve that, either, but I understand it.
It feels inadequate to simply say, “That’s awful. I’m so sorry.” Or even, “I don’t know what to do or say.” But what I know from my own experience with grief and despair is that the very worst part is feeling utterly alone. And when I go off into my memory lane of misery, guess what? I’m ditching. I’m bailing out of the present moment. I’m not empathizing; I’m leaving. My challenge is this: Try to stay put.
Your loved one died and you feel like a sucking hole has been punched right through the center of your reality? I’m not going to try to tell you about what it was like when my dad died and I fell to the floor and went into premature labor because everything inside me convulsed. I’m not going to go away. I’m going to sit with you in the howl. You’re having a hard time getting out of bed in the morning and not hating the person you see in the mirror because you can’t shut off the bad voices that tell you you’re worthless and that there’s no point to anything? I’m right here, friend. You know the voices are wrong, but they won’t be quiet. I’m not going to add my voice to the din. I’m not going to road trip in my head to my own grey, thudding place of fear and anxiety, the one that’s always right around the corner. I’m just going to sit with you in yours until the light comes back.
Presence is really fucking hard.
Sometimes, the most difficult and loving thing you can do is just stay there and shut the hell up. Often during the day, one of my cats will come and lie against me. That’s it. We don’t talk much. As it turns out, they aren’t great at conversation. They just come over every once in a while and press their furry bodies against me. We enjoy the mutual, unspoken contact. Be that, I remind myself.
“You aren’t crazy,” I tell a suffering friend. “I see you. I see your struggle. Anyone would be staggered by it. I love you. I’m proud of you. I’m here.” If someone has a giant grief elephant sitting in their living room, I don’t pretend I don’t see it. “That’s a big fucking elephant ya got there,” I say. “I hope it doesn’t crap the rug.” The grieving friend is so relieved. “You see it, too, right?” I do.
I’m trying to be a warm cat. I’m trying to be a witness. The more I practice, the easier I find it is to be a compassionate observer in my own life, instead the frazzled fixer I usually am.