Note: This post was originally published Sept. 13, 2017, on the website Tiny Buddha, and you can find that version here.
Over breakfast one morning recently, Jeff and I started reminiscing about past years, and something was said that brought back a painful memory for me. My boss at the time had been unimaginably small-minded. He had hung me out to dry. “I still can’t understand why he did that,” I said.
Jeff looked at me levelly. “You need to get over it, Jan,” he said. “It was years ago.”
Wise advice, without question. The only problem was that I didn’t want it just then.
Why is it that we are so seldom allowed a few moments just to hurt? After a serious heartbreak like the death of a loved one, sure, we’re given all the leeway we need. But the run-of-the-mill slights and small, persistent sorrows are treated as something we should quickly move past, even when they’re deeply painful. Jeff, poor guy, was just trying to help. I couldn’t fault him. I knew I was being a bit ridiculous. But what I longed for was someone to acknowledge my outrage, let me sit with it, live into it for a few moments—and then gently remind me that it’s time to get over it.
A few hours later, after I’d licked my wounds and was feeling better, I began to wonder: Might I also be failing to honor the sorrows of others?
Everything I’ve learned in the past eight years, since the death of our son, has pointed me to the same lesson: The most important thing we can give each other in times of pain is compassion, a simple, “Oh, I bet that’s really hard.” We should offer that before—or instead of—advice on how to cope.
Even worse are the times when we immediately turn the conversation to ourselves: “I know just what you mean. I’m going through something like that too.” I catch myself doing this way too often. My intent is to signal to the person that we’re partners in pain and can support each other. But the comment shifts the focus away from my companion’s heartache to mine.
Or we may inadvertently belittle our friend’s sorrow with stories of how we’ve overcome the same challenge. Recently I overheard a conversation between two elderly women. One was talking about how emotionally wrenching she was finding it to give up her home and move to a retirement facility. “Oh, you won’t miss it a bit once you get settled,” the other woman said. She had already been through the experience and knew without question what lay ahead. I wanted to break in and hug the first woman. When we are in pain, the last thing we need is someone who knows without question what lies ahead.
Many of us find it deeply uncomfortable to be in the presence of suffering. And no wonder. We live in a culture where we’re taught from childhood to hide our hurts, to buck up and get over them. We don’t want to display them, and we don’t want to see them in others. Yet unspoken pain is all around us.
I’m talking here about a way of caring for each other that hews a fine line, because I in no way want to encourage my friends and loved ones to wallow in their sorrow. I want to honor it for what it is but never give it the power to rule my life. It’s true that others may be able to benefit from what I’ve learned—but not immediately after suffering the same kind of hurt. And it’s entirely up to them whether or not they want to learn from me.
To show love for another in sorrow asks more of us than empathetic gestures. It asks us to try and understand exactly what the other is feeling, and even to risk getting a taste of that pain.
At a retreat in Maui in 2001, Ram Dass drew a clear distinction between empathy and compassion. “Compassion for somebody else is that you are one with them and you hurt with them. That compassion comes out of the oneness of your heart, the oneness with all beings . . . ” He continued, “It’s not just empathy. It’s not one person feels empathy for another person. It’s got to be one person.”
How will I ever reach the point where I can feel as one with someone who’s hurting? In this I’m like a child learning to walk; I can only stumble and try again. I’ve lived most of my life cultivating the image of myself as a strong, independent woman who doesn’t need anyone’s help. Reid’s death showed me how wrong I was. My task now, I think, is to be present for others who are hurting, because I know what suffering means. This knowledge is a bittersweet gift that’s been given to me by life. I’m trying as hard as I can to use it.
I do not always succeed.
This is what I know for certain: I can’t tell others how to heal. All I can do is sit with them—and when they’re ready, help them light a candle to find their way out of the dark. Doing this kindly, without giving voice to how I think they should move forward, is a practice I will struggle to follow the rest of my life.
One last thing: A few weeks ago, when I had another setback with work, my dear Jeff came to me and enveloped me in a hug. He held me close, hurting with me. And only then, after several minutes, did he remind me that it wasn’t all that important—that in fact I had plenty of reasons to let it go.
I responded by giving him the biggest, longest kiss I’ve given him in years.
Ram Dass’ comments about empathy versus compassion can be found here.