the pain of others

Posted on November 19, 2008


compassionHave you ever stood beside someone whose pain is greater than you can phathom? Have you ever felt that awkwardness of not knowing what to do? That helplessness? What is our tendency? To DO SOMETHING! Anything! Maybe then we’ll feel better, because we DID SOMETHING.

Hmmm. But it isn’t about me doing something so I’ll feel better. It is about the pain of the other person that I cannot understand. Hmmm.

It is quite a human delemna, isn’t it?

Humans have this tendency to suffer.

Other humans have this tendency to DO SOMETHING to make it better.


It may not be real evident in my blogging, but every once in a while I do find an answer. Maybe one answer out of hundred questions. But when you find it, it is precious.

Warning: wisdom only comes wrapped in pain and suffering . . . in experiencing darkness.

I’ve experienced more pain in my life than I’d prefer.

I’ve stood by people in pain; in my personal life and in my career.

I’ve observed my behavior . . . my actions, reactions, proactions.

Did you know that standing by someone whose pain is greater than your brain can understand is OK? Nobody can fully understand another person’s pain.

Did you know that not knowing what to do is OK?

Actually, what you are doing at that moment is probably better for the person in pain than any other thing you can DO.

You are standing with them, listening, wondering, thinking. But you are there. BUT YOU ARE THERE! ALONGSIDE!

The meaning of compassion is to come alongside and bear another’s pain or suffer their suffering.

You listen so that you can open your heart and put that pain in your heart. It hurts. It’ll make you cry. It’ll make you awaken in the night in tears. Even though the suffering of others is always too great to fit in my brain, “nothing is too big to fit in my heart” (Bruce Cockburn). (wanna hear it? click here)

What do you do with tragedy (like 9/11)? You put it in your heart (again, Bruce Cockburn, “Put It In Your Heart, wanna hear it? click here).

What do you do with the thousands of children starving to death daily in Africa? You put it in your heart.

What do you do with poverty in America; and the broken remnants of families it leaves behind? You put it in your heart.

What do you do with a gang of teenage children shooting a fellow teenager in the roller rink in Kentwood? You put it in your heart.

What do you do with a friend going through divorce that you’ve never experienced? You put it in your heart.

You open your heart and bear that person’s pain with them. You let yourself feel it. At first you DO nothing until you have felt the pain.

Then action will be a meaningful action.

Then action will not be about making you feel better, but it will come out of compassion.

Remember: life is “too big to fit in my brain . . . but nothing is too big to fit in my heart.”

Do you get it? Women tend to understand this, but us men have a hard time with this. We want to fix things. We want to just do something . . . anything. The beauty of women is seen when you watch them just sit and listen and cry and feel it and sit and listen and cry some more. I had a great role model and have learned it is not just a woman-thing, it is a human thing. Thanks, Mom.

Henry Nouwen was the first to put this into words for me in his book “Compassion”:

“God is a compassionate God. This means, first of all, that he is a God that has chosen to be God-with-us . . ..

“When do we receive real comfort and consolation? Is it when someone teaches us how to act or think? Is it when we receive advice about where to go or what to do? Is it when we receive words of reassurance and hope? Sometimes, perhaps. But what really counts is that in moments of pain and suffering, someone stays with us. More important than any particular action or word of advice is the simple presence of someone who cares. When someone says to us in the midst of crisis, ‘I do not know what to say or what to do, but I want you to realize that I am with you, that I will not leave you alone,’ we have a friend through whom we can find comfort and consolation. In a time so full of methods and techniques designed to change people, to influence their behavior, and to make them do new things and think new thoughts, we have lost the difficult gift of being present to each other. We have lost this gift because we have been led to believe that presence must be useful. We say, ‘Why should I visit this person, I can’t do anything, anyway? I don’t have anything to say. Of what use can I be?’ Meanwhile, we have forgotten that it is often in ‘useless’, unpretentious, humble presence to each other that we feel consolation and comfort. Simply being with someone is difficult because it asks of us that we share in the other’s vulnerability, enter with him or her into the experience of weakness and powerlessness, become part of uncertainty, and give up control and self-determination. And still, whenever this happens, new strength and new hope is being born. Those who offer us comfort and consolation by being with us and staying with us in moments of illness, mental anguish, and spiritual darkness often grow as close to us as those with biological ties. They show our solidarity with us by entering into the dark, uncharted spaces of our lives. For this reason, they are the ones that bring us new hope and help us discover new directions.” (“Compassion”, pages 13-14)

After all, isn’t this the way God loves us. The Spirit brings our pain and groaning to God the Father when we are beyond the point of having words to pray.

So, relax and open your heart.

Thanks to friends and family that have been there for my kids and me during this time.

Check out one of my favorite songs: Weep With You by Ralston Bowles