A little light along the way
As ready as we all are to move on from this year, I believe that this historically difficult time will leave us all changed in ways we couldn’t have imagined. I do not believe that we will leave 2020 the way we entered it having born witness to the kind of human suffering and fear that has held so many of us in its grip.
Certainly, each individual’s experience has been informed by their unique circumstances. Although the weight and intensity of suffering has not been shared equally, we have all been impacted directly or indirectly by the fear and instability of these past 9 months. All of our lives have been disrupted and stress has been a constant unwelcome companion causing our normal coping skills to wear thin.
Having held space for the pain of adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse for over 20 years, I suppose I have become an expert in human suffering. I am happy to share with you a couple of thoughts with the hope that this brings you a kind of perspective and tenderness for the suffering of others, and most importantly, your own to bring with you into the new year.
Suffering is not measurable or comparable nor is it unending or unendurable.
It is important to know that your suffering matters. It seems to be a human tendency to attempt to measure and compare our suffering to the suffering of others. I so often hear, “but my pain, suffering, discomfort is nothing compared to others. I really have nothing to complain about.” Perhaps this is some valiant effort to rationalize or diminish one’s own suffering.
Pain and suffering are emotional experiences, unique and valid to each individual. In fact, our rational mind, wonderful tool of logic and reason that it is, is not designed to calculate or make sense of human suffering. We actually create more stress and discomfort in trying to push away our own struggle. As it turns out, our emotional mind is the right tool for the job. As we allow ourselves to take in our own experience of suffering and the suffering of others, we find that our capacity to care for ourselves and others increases. We find that suffering is not unending, unendurable or without value and that growth emerges from pain. Your suffering, regardless of how it compares to others, is meaningful and real.
Compassion will get us through
So many events of this past pandemic and turbulent year have left us feeling powerless. So much that matters in our day-to-day lives and in the larger world around us has been altered. We have been holding the tension and uncertainty of the existential questions that always exist but we are usually able to ignore - questions of safety, connection, and even life and death. We have seen the heartbreakingly relentless suffering of our neighbors, our fellow citizens, and humans from all around the world as the pandemic continues to inflict pain, fear and loss. We are weary from the constant fear for our safety, the safety of those we know and those we don’t know and we feel the tendency to want to pull back, to shut down.
In these times I find myself constantly reminding others (and certainly myself) that there are things that are still in our control and that possibly the most important of these is our ability to offer compassion to ourselves and to others.
Lest you tend to dismiss compassion as a touchy-feely esoteric notion, it is useful to know there is currently quite a bit of study that indicates a biological basis for compassion and that it serves a deep evolutionary purpose for humans. Research shows that when we feel compassion our heart rate slows; we secrete the bonding hormone oxytocin and the regions of our brain that cause us to want to approach and care for others (and ourselves) are activated.
There is a clear link between suffering and compassion. The word compassion literally means, to suffer with. When we are able to generate compassion, we feel warmth, caring, and a desire to move toward the suffering person in some way. Many of us find it easy to extend compassion to others but less so to ourselves and my suggestion is that you consider compassion through the lens of self-compassion.
I often describe compassion as the ability to keep one’s heart open to the suffering of others and oneself and I believe with my whole heart and my whole mind that this is the way through for us all. Rather than to close down and push away our own and the suffering of others, we have the option (and perhaps the responsibility) to activate a kind of warmth and connection that is so desperately needed at this time. It is heartening for me to remember that I have the ability to enact compassion to ease my suffering and the suffering of others.
If there is a light through this time, and I do believe there is, it is the light of compassion that lives within each of us. My wish for each of you at the ending of this perilous year is that the adversity that you have endured will kindle a stronger and deeper compassion within you for yourself and for others and that as we suffer together we may experience our connection with our shared human experience.