The most natural aspects of the human experience seem to be the things we most want to avoid. Pain, both physical and emotional, is something we try to avoid. It’s a paradox of sorts, don’t you think? We are desperate to avoid pain, but it is impossible to do so. We humans go to great lengths to try to avoid physical pain. We wear clothing to keep us warm, or gear to protect us from injuries. We put airbags in our cars and we pad our chairs. We develop platitudes such as “thinking of you” or “praying for you” that we can
send in a card or an email to avoid having to be present with a hurting person. Sometimes we offer an endless array of possible solutions to a person’s problem, as if somehow we can find an answer that will address the pain. Many of our technological advances are born of a desire to avoid or alleviate pain or make us more comfortable. We want to innovate the pain away.
So why do we do it? Why do we insist on keeping our distance from hurting people? Why do we feel compelled to try to fix their problem and end their pain? Why do we work so hard to avoid pain ourselves? I do not need to prove to you that you cannot actually avoid pain; you already know this, you have experienced it, so there is nothing to fear. So why do we treat people going through medical crises or emotional difficulties like lepers, keeping them at arms-length? Just what is it about simply being with someone in pain and doing nothing that is so difficult for us?
The simplest answer is probably the most accurate: we are ourselves trying to avoid pain. It is impossible to look upon someone else’s pain and not feel a little pain yourself. Yes, you can learn to detach to a degree, which is a virtual mandate if your job is in the helping professions. After all, you can’t go around crying all day long; you wouldn’t get much work done. But detachment often leads to failure at the critical task of empathy. It is not possible to be present with someone and be completely unaffected by whatever they are facing. Even if they are having a psychotic episode, they are not merely ‘crazy’; they are hurting, and we damned well know it. They don’t want to be in that condition, they are unable to control their circumstances. Pain is largely beyond our control. That cold, clinical approach that so many health care professionals adopt is really a wall they erect between themselves and their patients to protect themselves. If your doctor seems cool and disaffected, they probably are. But don’t take it personally; they are just doing what the vast majority of us do, what they were trained to do: They are keeping their distance.
In the mental health professions, there is a term used for the act of being present with and acknowledging someone without actively doing anything to fix them or change their circumstances. The medical community used to use this term in the same way, but they are far more focused on fixing things now. This act of being present is referred to as “attending.” To attend to someone isn’t to suggest coping strategies or to try to fix or alleviate their pain. Those can be components of counseling and helping, too, but they aren’t attending. Attending is simply being present with someone and saying, literally or through our actions, I hear you. I see you. I see your pain. I will bear it with you. I will stand beside you and stare into the abyss with you. You have a right to your feelings and I acknowledge them. You can simply be where you are and I will be here with you. I guess you could say that attending is the ultimate form of empathy.
The most helpful thing we can do for people who are hurting is to attend to them. They will eventually do whatever needs to be done to move forward from their circumstances. What they need most is to be validated, to be seen and heard, to have their pain acknowledged. We do ourselves no favors by avoiding our emotions. They are going to happen no matter what; it is part of the human experience. We need to embrace our pain if we are to move past it. Otherwise, it is like a chain attached to our leg, weighting us down and making it hard to keep going. But the moment someone else says, “I’m here. I see you. I know you are hurting and it’s OK,” we feel relief. Our load is lightened just a little bit.
The greatest gift we can give another human being is not to look away from them when they are hurting. Attend to your friends and family. Attend to a stranger if you have the chance, if only for a few minutes. You don’t need to fix things and you don’t need to run away. You just need to be there. If tears well up in your eyes, let them fall. That’s how you know you are fully human.