What is it about pain that makes us want to run in the other direction?
I’m not talking about when we experience pain ourselves (although we’re not rousing fans of that either). I’m talking about when someone in our lives is in the throws of deep suffering and we’d rather watch episodes of Ready Set Cook than check in.
These aren’t pint-size pains like Martha the arthritic senior, Samuel who just broke up with his girlfriend, or Kat whose cat (also named Kat) passed away. Those are on the ‘manageable’ side of the pain spectrum, and thus much easier to wade into. Not so hurtful, easy to get over. It’s fairly simple to be there for your friend amidst this sort of low-impact pain.
I’m talking about the heart-wrenching, stomach-churning, wail-producing sort of pain that leaves you with a metaphysical conviction that life is just not fair. I’m talking about high-impact pain. Some examples include:
If your answer every time is a resounding yes, well then, you are incredible. You are courageous and kind. The world does not deserve you.
If you’re like me, you’re ashamed to admit that on your bad days, the answer to this question is no. The reaction of many to high-impact suffering is to avoid. You know you should want to check in and provide comfort, but deep down, you’d rather not. You’d rather curl up under a blanket and not face them. Then you feel guilty that you don’t want to reach out, which makes it 1000x worse.
You find stupidly meaningless things to do instead of contacting them. Re-organizing your silverware drawer. Binging Marie Kondo on Netflix. Looking at houses you can’t afford on Zillow. Stalking high school acquaintances on social media. Meanwhile, in your head, the lies you tell yourself to help deal with your own cowardice include:
(None of these, btw, are the real reason)
So we don’t reach out.
We distance. We ignore. And then so much time passes that it now feels awkward to engage — even if the pain, scandal, or loss has now passed. The giant elephant in the room — I wasn’t there when you needed me — makes it easier to continue our Avoidance Campaign. Regret gives birth to shame. So we soldier on, valiantly, in the shadows. Only to wake up one morning and realize a year has passed. I-don’t-know-how-to-approach-this-person-in-their-pain has suddenly morphed into I-shunned-a-person-who-was-suffering. It’s inexcusable and unsettling. We’re left wondering How could I be so awful? Is there hope for a meaningful relationship with this person going forward? How on earth will I show my face to them again? Hint: we usually don’t.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the isle, we have the person experiencing the suffering. What exactly is going through their mind, you ask?
Step 1 is acknowledging the pain to themselves.
This is part of me. This is part of my life now. I must determine how to live a fulfilled life with this suffering. No more pity parties.
Step 2 is acknowledging the pain to others.
I’ve lived through years of chronic, physical pain. You get to the point where the pain is so bad, and for such an extended period of time, that you can’t keep it from others. Withholding feels a lot more like lying. Withholding also expends too much energy, energy that is better used elsewhere when your tank is already on empty. Putting on a fake face and pretending everything is okay is no longer an option. You have to accept that your emotions will manifest what your body is experiencing. You will come to find that once you’ve embraced this, speaking the brutal truth suddenly feels comfortable.
A typical run-in with an acquaintance during my pain period went something like this:
‘So, how’s it going, MaryBeth?’
‘Actually I’m not doing that well today.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that. I wish I could stop & chat, but I have to go. Nice seeing you.’
Mmmmkay. I’ll just sit here and nurse my gaping wounds, now increased by that power-packed jab to my vulnerability.
P.S. have you noticed that most people who ask the ‘how are you question’ expect a positive response, and, upon receiving a negative one, seem to be irritated and inconvenienced? ‘How dare you dampen my day with your bad news!’ They seem to say.
Step 3 is settling into quasi-isolation.
You still have to go to work and run errands, but when it comes to your private life, people engage with you differently. Suddenly, the phone calls stop. The invites stop. Instead of distractions and encouragement, you’re left to feast on nothing but your suffering. The thing that makes pain unbearable isn’t the feeling itself, it’s the sensation of being alone in it. It’s the ‘no one understands’ ‘no one cares’ conga line that seems to be on repeat in your head, only bolstered, might I add, by interactions like the one above.
Having been on both the giving and receiving end of suffering avoidance, I’ve always wondered why we do this. Why do we avoid people who are in pain? Why don’t we engage those who are suffering?
I’ll tell you why. We’re afraid of three things.
→ Afraid of saying the wrong thing.
We’ve all been the recipient of cutting comments in response to our pain. The kind of comments that mean well, but sting. We’d hate to say something that will injure the person further. Driven by the fear of saying the wrong thing, we say nothing at all.
→ Afraid that the platitudes won’t cut it.
When faced with someone’s brutal suffering, the only thing that seems to come to mind are useless platitudes like:
Everything happens for a reason
It will get better
This will make you stronger
Time will heal
It even feels robotic saying these to a suffering person. The phrases are devoid of power. As Faulkner would say, they are “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Platitudes don’t help, which leads me to the last fear…
→ Afraid we don’t have what it takes to make it better.
This is the crux of it. We know, deep down, the sufferer’s pain is so big, entrenched, and expansive, that we don’t have what it takes to make it better. We cannot fix it. And what we can’t fix, we avoid. I will not be enough for this person, so why show up in the first place.
Okay, MaryBeth. I get it now. What can I do instead of avoid?
Below are three options that have personally ministered to me in my season of pain.
Be free of the expectation to ‘fix’ a person’s problems. The suffering person knows you can’t solve their pain. In fact, if a potential solution exists, your friend has tried it already. What the sufferer really wants (and desperately needs) is your presence. They want someone to bear witness to their life, in the good times and the very, very, bad. Show up to their house with no agenda. Maybe you’ll talk about the pain, maybe you won’t, but at least you’re present. You’re there with them, ready to weather the storm. Show up. Get off the Solutions Committee and get on the Presence Committee.
Every sufferer wants to be whisked away from their pain. The best gift you can give them is a mental escape. Show up at their house and say ‘Get in the car we’re going to the park!’ Take them to comedy show. Suggest a walk around the block and don’t take no for an answer 😉. All of these things help them get out of their head, which is a good thing. It is there where they agonize over the pain. Having their mind dwell on something other than the pain, at least for a few hours, is like a drink of cold water in the desert: satisfying, rejuvenating, needed.
Manage the conversation.
Your friend is already overspent with their own emotions. The last thing they want to do is manage yours. Commit to becoming CEO of the interaction. Call them up on the phone and talk about yourself and what is going on in your life. Talk about your job, your kids, an exciting vacation you have planned. Don’t ask them about their pain or how they are doing. Remove any conversational responsibility from them. Carry the conversation. Give them the gift of an interaction that is both low effort and free of any pain talk. It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s quite refreshing.
→ → The key to implementing these three strategies is decisiveness.
Don’t ask your suffering friend if they want you to come over or they want to talk. Chances are they’ll say no because the thought of talking about their pain and managing your response to it is more than they can bear. Instead, assume they would enjoy the company (they would) and implement.
Confident. Grounded. Present. This sort of execution will instantly make your friend relax. They’ll be able to breathe a sigh of relief leaning on your strength as a container for their pain. An oasis in the desert. A quiet space in a crowded room. Beautifully held, refreshingly seen.
4/22/2019 01:10:28 am
Marybeth, this is such an important post. When I think about deep suffering, which you call high-impact suffering, I am filled with sadness. Our human nature does not want to experience or witness such deep suffering because it often makes us feel helpless and useless, especially if the person in pain is a family member whom we love or a good friend we've known for a long time. We are mostly at a loss as to what to say or do. It feels cold and insensitive to just sit and do nothing or to even avoid interacting. Personally, I need to learn it is OK to just be present. I love the strategies you suggest. It may feel weird to talk about myself as a means to distract the other from their pain. Or, maybe, I just grab my lotion and ask my friend if I can massage their hands or their feet with it as a means of giving some comfort. The truth is that we probably cannot fix what's broken and our words cannot heal or remove the pain. Maybe, we just accept the fact that we are there to simply walk beside our friend and just hold their hand as we share in their humanity and acknowledge their struggle. This is very good and very deep stuff to ponder. Thanks for sharing your journey with us.
4/22/2019 06:56:30 am
Thanks so much for your feedback! I like when you said 'Our human nature does not want to experience or witness such deep suffering because it often makes us feel helpless and useless' We don't like feeling helpless, it makes us feel uncomfortable so we want to avoid it.
4/25/2019 09:46:15 pm
Marybeth, Your message touched me, especially since I have experienced loved ones in pain: mother, brother, aunt, uncle, godmother, friends. My immediate feeling was to be there for them...in person whenever possible, but also via phone, email or cards across the miles. Your suggestions are most intuitive and helpful...since I've heard people say, "I can't see him/her in this condition." That, to me, is a selfish attitude. How does not seeing a person in pain help them?
4/27/2019 03:09:47 pm
Hello, Camille! Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. 😉
11/15/2021 11:37:19 am
I love this post. It rings so true I want to share it with everyone who has avoided me in my 7 years of horrible, life-shattering chronic pain. But most of them have already left my life for good, because they can't handle dealing with long-term suffering. It seems people can only handle short-term suffering in a friend or loved one. When it goes on too long, they jump ship, just when you need people around you more than ever, ironically.
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