This post appeared first in The Finger Lakes Times(NY), under the column heading, “Denim Spirit”: http://www.fltimes.com/opinion/denim-spirit-pain-and-suffering/article_143f40a3-fe86-5249-8f26-15c539bd33bf.html
Did you ever feel truly heard by a friend?
Remember what that feels like? Remember pausing from the long, woeful description of your pain and fear as you realized that your friend had actually been listening intently?
Remember how it felt to know he or she not only heard your words, but also heard the feelings within those tears rolling down your cheeks, and in the ache gripping your heart, and under the knot tying up your stomach? Remember what that felt like, to be held within the rapt attention of someone else’s caring? Amazing, right?
Then can you also remember a time so horrible that the only thing anyone could do for you, was to just be there? Remember what that was like?
They were just there with you: not asking or doing, not trying to fix or cover up the awfulness of what you were going through, but simply there for you. Maybe at the time it didn’t seem like that big a deal, but as you looked back, you realized how crucial and how powerful their willingness to just be there with you was, and the impact it has had since. I bet you count it as grace, if ever you claimed grace in your life.
The bravery of simple presence, and the courage to experience what someone else is experiencing, is powerful beyond words.
I learned about the power of simple presence the hard way, sitting with a burn patient every day while he was in a hyperbaric chamber. His position in the relationship was exponentially more painful than mine, I realize, but he was also my teacher.
We were both in our twenties and living in Boston; he a patient in the hospital, and me a chaplain intern. His family had asked that someone sit with him each day during his treatment, as he had anxiety about being place in the machine. He was also in excruciating pain, all the time. With burns over fifty-percent of his body, his long-term prospects were far from certain.
I was not alone in this venture, at least not in the bigger picture.
I had a supervisor that kept me honest and prevented me from running away in fear. When I reported my frustration that there was nothing I could do, not even offer him some water or anything, my supervisor required me to stare into the hole of that frustration, and see what my fear of powerlessness was really composed of.
All the things we find to do in such situations, I have come to discover, are usually more to placate our own anxiety and fears than addressing the true needs of the one who is in pain. In the process, we often rob the person we imagine we are serving, of the one thing we can truly give him or her.
I no longer remember who made this distinction but it remains with me as a whispering ghost in my heart: The difference between suffering and pain, is that suffering is pain endured in isolation.
Being truly present may not take away someone’s pain, but it will lift the quarantine of severe aloneness that unattended pain inflicts.