Sit In The Discomfort

“How are you?” they ask. “Oh, I’m fine,” you might reply. But really, you are not. Maybe the truth looks like this:

I was laid off.

I have cancer.

I am getting divorced.

I don’t have the money.

I drink too much and I don’t know why.

I am estranged from my family.

I was abused.

I am sad.

I visited an artist named Robbi Firestone in Santa Fe this week. She very candidly shared with me her story of infertility, which she is now sharing with the world through a moving installation entitled The Empty Womb. Firestone recalled to me the story of a woman with whom she also shared her battle with infertility. This other woman put forward the notion that Firestone’s “paintings were her babies,” suggesting a sort of consolation prize for which she ought to be grateful.

An image from Robbi Firestone’s installation The Empty Womb

What leads someone to rationalize another person’s experience of suffering? How come some offer money when it is not lacking versus presence when it is? Why do people skip hospital visits for the ones they love? How come the phone fails to ring when the world sees we are most alone?

The next time someone offers you her pain or shares with you her suffering, do not try to explain its meaning. In fact, do not respond at all. Instead, simply listen. And then, as the listener, sit in the discomfort. Realize that it is your own vulnerability and mortality you feel so profoundly. Recognize that it is you who is most afraid. If you must speak, ask this other person how the experience has made her feel and then thank her for sharing. Make a conscious choice to sit in the discomfort with another person who must sit there mostly alone.

It is in these moments we decide how to show up in the world. Show up with empathy. Do better than your best intentions.

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