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Are we too Quick to Reassure to Avoid the pain of others

The passages below are taken from Father Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book “Turn My Mourning into Dancing,” published in 2001:

Unconsciously Evading Someone’s Pain by rushing with advice.

     If someone asked you if you were compassionate, you might say yes. Or at least, “I believe so.” But pause to examine the word compassion and answering gets more complicated. For the word comes from roots that mean literally to “suffer with”; to show compassion means sharing in the suffering “passion” of another. Compassion understood in this way asks more from us than a mere stirring of pity or a sympathetic word.

     To live with compassion means to enter others’ dark moments. It is to walk into places of pain, not to flinch or look away when another agonises. It means to stay where people suffer. Compassion holds us back from quick, eager explanations when tragedy meets someone we know or love.

     In some ways you might think such opening of ourselves to others’ pain would only intensify our own. How many people run to where others are suffering? Who easily hears someone weep or cry out or reveal a quiet sadness? Confronted with poverty or hardship or mourning, we say to ourselves, “Let’s go where things feel a little more comfortable.” Such is our natural logic.

     Even when we do resist the temptation to run and think we listen sympathetically, we may still try to evade or avoid someone’s pain. Imagine that someone comes to you and says, “I want to talk to you about my disappointment. I am wondering if I can go on like this much longer.” Something in us immediately wants to comfort and console. “It’s not as bad as you think,” we might be tempted to say. “Look at the bright side; there are good things in this situation.”

     I recall a time as a priest that I visited a woman who suffered devastating loss after a hurricane and flood swept through her neighbourhood. I found her alone, desperately gazing at the damage done to her house. She sat saying to herself, “I am superfluous. I have become meaningless. Since my husband died, I am only a burden for myself, my children, my neighbours. Nobody needs me anymore. There is only one thing left for me to do: to die.” Although I knew her typically as talkative and outgoing, now she hardly recognised me.

     “You have no reason to be depressed,” I said. “Look---you have children who love you and like to visit you. You have charming grandchildren who are happy to have a grandmother to spend time with them. Your son already has plans to come to fix your house. Besides, few people in this neighbourhood fared as well as you in the storm.”

     I did not help her with these words. I made her more depressed, more haunted by guilt, more aware of a pressure to face her world with a smiling face. My words came more as accusation than consolation. “After all,” I said in effect, “my arguments for feeling good are better than your arguments for feeling bad.” I had not accepted her feelings, but instantly fought her in a subtle competition of arguments. When I left, I went from a woman feeling more sad than before, more burdened because I had not even acknowledged I had heard her. I did not give her permission to feel sad in a sad moment.

     In so many encounters we try to look away from the pain. We try to help our friends quickly process grief. We hastily look for ways to bring cheer to a child or ailing aunt. All the while, however, we act less out of genuine “suffering with” and more out of our need to stand back from the discomfort we fear we might feel. We secretly, restlessly want to move from the place where it hurts. Our evasions do not help others, of course, but rather cause them to put up defences and drive away those who need someone to care.

     One reason we react to others this way grows out of our skirting of our own pain. We resist getting near the suffering of another partly out of our unwillingness to suffer ourselves. For another’s hardship suggests to us what can also hurt us. Such reminders unsettle. But our hesitation to look squarely at another’s suffering, to sit or stand with someone in pain, weighs on conversations an obligation for the other to “act happy.” Even worse, our persisting in denying our losses leads to mounting desire to control other people’s lives. In his penetrating study, The Betrayal of the Self, the psychoanalyst Arno Gruen shows convincingly how “the actual source of our cruelty and callousness lies in the rejection of our suffering.”

     For we may fall into the illusion that we own people, that we can use them, that we have a right to manage their feelings. By offering premature advice on how to cope, by rushing to reassure, by prodding with advice, we say much about our own need for easy closure. When we barge in with such consolation, we make hurting souls into objects or projects.

     For all the ways this approach seems to insulate us from the hurts and needs of others, it ends up not helping us at all. It barricades us in our own insistence on comfort. Indeed, a possessive approach to relationships creates many of our disappointments; people rarely respond well to our efforts to manage their lives or orchestrate their response to their pains. We find relationships bending or even breaking under the weight of expectations we place on them in our discomfort with another’s suffering. We end up even more alone and walled within our disappointments or sadnesses.(67-70)

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