Pain and Empathy

Image from page 295 of “Bell telephone magazine” (1922), courtesy of Internet Archives Book Images on Flickr

Last week we drove 2,000 miles from Traverse City to San Diego. What struck me about this trip were the dramatic changes in scenery from one state to another: from the skyscrapers in Chicago, to the Arch in St. Louis, to the flatlands and desserts of Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona. Every day shed new light on the contexts in which people live their lives. What made the trip go fast, however, were the podcasts we listened to for hours on end.

I not only broadened my image of skyscapes and landscapes, I also deepened my appreciation of Krista Tippitt, the NPR broadcast host of On Being. She hosts podcasts on “soulscapes.” We listened to interviews she conducted with Mary Oliver, Mary Karr, Naomi Shihab Nye, David Brooks, Ellen Langer, Thich Nhat Hanh and many others. All of these award-winning authors and poets were discussing, from their particular frame of reference, the relationship between pain and empathy. As it turns out, I had been thinking about posting on pain and empathy before the trip. This serendipitous happenstance enriched my insights considerably and gave me multiple angles from which to approach the subject.

Ellen Langer, the Harvard professor and author of Mindfulness, suggested that we perceive tragedies as inconveniences whenever possible. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and best-selling author, discussed how suffering increases our capacity for compassion. All of Krista’s guests, in their own way, touched on the themes that perception and context highly influence the way we view our own situations and our ability to view others’ situations with more caring, empathy, and sensitivity. Their deep insights made me wonder about how people are able to manage pain and how, if they survive, they become more understanding of other peoples’ pain and struggles.

My friend Butch committed suicide a few years ago. His pain finally broke him. Butch was a roofer his whole life. He inherited a struggling business from his father and built it into a thriving enterprise. Unfortunately, over the course of 30 years, he had his share of falls from roofs and ladders. He injured his back, his neck, his shoulders, and his pride. After 28 increasingly painful surgeries and heroic rehabilitation efforts, even the drugs could not alleviate his suffering. To make it worse, he felt guilty that his care was a huge burden on his wife. In the end, the pain and guilt were just too much to handle.

I get it. Butch felt exhausted because the relentless intensity of the pain finally wore him down in spite of his valiant efforts to work through it.

Leonard Cohen, my favorite singer and songwriter, writes beautifully on the subject of pain.

  1. You who wish to conquer pain, you must learn what makes one kind from bitter searching of the heart, quickened with passion and with pain we rise to play a greater part. This is the fate from which we start.
  2. How can I begin anything new with all of yesterday in me.
  3. Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything — that’s how the light gets in

For Butch, yesterday became too hard to begin again and the crack was too large to allow for repair.

Another young friend of mine, Kristin, also decided her pain was too much to bear. She was a 16-year-old whom a friend of ours adopted from Korea at the age of 8. She was a lovely person and put a smiling face on everything she did, but inside she was suffering. It’s a horrible price to pay for thinking you need to fake how you are feeling or to pretend your apparent personality reflects who you really are. I had been counseling her when she decided to end her life. It was one of the most painful experiences of my life not to be able to ease her pain enough to see a pathway forward and to connect with the real beauty of who she was.

I understand now that Kristin felt totally drained because it took such enormous energy over several years to cover her pain with a pleasant smile.

Rumi, my favorite poet, also writes eloquently about pain. Here are a couple of quotes from him:

  1. Don’t get lost in your pain. Know that one day your pain will become your cure.
  2. These pains you feel are messengers. Listen to them.
  3. Brother, stand the pain. Escape the poison of your impulses. The sky will bow to your beauty, if you do. Learn to light the candle. Rise with the sun. Turn away from the cave of your sleeping. That way a thorn expands to a rose.
  4. Grief can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life’s search for love and wisdom.
  5. All the awakened ones, like trusted midwives, are saying: welcome this pain. It opens the dark passage of Grace.
  6. Don’t run away from grief, old soul. Look for the remedy inside the pain.
  7. Pain is a treasure, for it contains mercies.
  8. When inward tenderness finds the secret hurt, pain itself will crack the rock and let the soul emerge.

Kristin felt so lost in her pain that she wasn’t able to listen to the messages and escape her impulses. Even though she made heroic efforts to find her way, she couldn’t see enough light at the end of her dark passage.

I am not a stranger to pain. Kristin introduced me to the painful realization that sometimes I’m not adequate to help people deal with their issues. I can’t give another person hope; I can only try to help them find it for themselves. And I have experienced other pains as well. Physically, I’ve had three hip replacement and two back surgeries. Emotionally, I’ve had to cope with several losses. Intellectually, I’m troubled by the lack of inquiry I observe and the avoidance of meaningful conversations. Spiritually, I have worked too hard on my quest for meaning instead of simply opening up, welcoming new energy, and easing into the flow and dance of life.

Clearly, my pain does not compare to the pain Butch and Kristin had to face each day. What I have learned from my experiences, however, is that pain may not be your friend, but it may be your partner. And pain may be the path to empathy.

The people I know who exude compassion, forgiveness, loving kindness, and caring are those who have had to work through their pain. Somehow, the pain carves out more room for joy, gratitude, and compassion. For me, this poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, says it best.

“Divide and Conquer,” by Flickr user Thomas Hawk.
Kindness
Before you know what kindness really is
 you must lose things,
 feel the future dissolve in a moment
 like salt in a weakened broth.
 What you held in your hand,
 what you counted and carefully saved,
 all this must go so you know
 how desolate the landscape can be
 between the regions of kindness.
 How you ride and ride
 thinking the bus will never stop,
 the passengers eating maize and chicken
 will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
 you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
 lies dead by the side of the road.
 You must see how this could be you,
 how he too was someone
 who journeyed through the night with plans
 and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
 you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
 You must wake up with sorrow.
 You must speak to it till your voice
 catches the thread of all sorrows
 and you see the size of the cloth.
 Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
 only kindness that ties your shoes
 and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
 only kindness that raises its head
 from the crowd of the world to say
 It is I you have been looking for,
 and then goes with you everywhere
 like a shadow or a friend

I don’t think more kindness would have saved Butch and Kristin, but it would sure help the rest of us who are not experiencing their level of pain. So, as you go on your travels — wherever they may take you — may you find and give kindness and compassion. Give thanks for all the landscapes, skyscapes, and soulscapes you encounter. Let pain be your partner and your guide to empathy for others. Your outer “scenery” may change, but your inner state may not. And don’t forget to bring Krista Tippitt along for the ride. Your travels will more likely be filled with abundant joy and sufficient light to reach the other side.


Originally published at Perspectives & Possibilities.