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Sitting Alongside Suffering

I listened to the recent On Being episode on depression while cleaning my kitchen. When Parker Palmer told this story, I stopped moving, the water running over a dish that had long been thoroughly rinsed:

“I had folks coming to me, of course, who wanted to be helpful; and sadly, many of them weren’t. These were the people who would say, “Gosh, Parker, why are you sitting in here being depressed? It’s a beautiful day outside. Go feel the sunshine and smell the flowers.” And that, of course, leaves a depressed person even more depressed, because while you know, intellectually, that it’s sunny out and that the flowers are lovely and fragrant, you can’t really feel any of that in your body, which is dead in a sensory way. And so you’re left more depressed by this “good advice” to get out and enjoy the day…

“There was this one friend who came to me, after asking permission to do so, every afternoon about 4:00, sat me down in a chair in the living room, took off my shoes and socks, and massaged my feet. He hardly ever said anything — he was a Quaker elder — and yet, out of his intuitive sense, from time to time would say a very brief word, like: “I can feel your struggle today,” or, farther down the road, “I feel that you’re a little stronger at this moment, and I’m glad for that.” But beyond that, he would say hardly anything. He would give no advice. He would simply report, from time to time, what he was intuiting about my condition. Somehow, he found the one place in my body, namely, the soles of my feet, where I could experience some sort of connection to another human being. And the act of massaging just — in a way that I really don’t have words for — kept me connected with the human race.”

I recognized myself. Not in the person suffering with depression. Not in the person washing the feet of the person suffering with depression. But in the person saying, “Go feel the sunshine and smell the flowers.”

And I don’t want to be that person. I want to be the one with the spiritual intelligence and steadfastness of the foot-washer.

Some people very close to me have suffered from both physical and mental distress lately. I’ve rushed in. I’ve tried to architect fixes. I’ve offered money, plane flights, pep talks, Buddhist books. I’ve basically bludgeoned them with the bright side. But we’re so lucky compared to so many people. But our loved ones are safe. But the sun is shining.

The more my heart breaks from witness, it seems, the less wise I get about how to be a source of solace. When I feel crushing empathy, a frenzy of reframing follows. I know it’s not loving to deny the reality of someone’s suffering; but I don’t quite know how to acknowledge that reality without pushing back against it. Is there anything more painful than watching someone you love suffer and feeling powerless?

I remember, after giving birth, truly believing that my family had endured the harder experience. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to watch the person I love most deeply in profound physical agony and have no way to help beyond offering encouraging words and a wet washcloth to the forehead.

Lately, it occurs to me that while I have never had the terrifying gift of witnessing someone I love give birth, I have been enduring a slower-moving version of this. I am watching people I love dearly struggle to birth a new version of themselves, aching into a new season of life. Their pain is less evident than a woman screaming obscenities in a hospital gown, but it is no less real. And I am no more powerful than my partner was as he desperately asked the midwife if it was too late for the drugs. It was. The baby’s head was practically crowning. Despite my state, I remember the wild animal look in his eye — desperate to stop my pain, totally out of touch with the reality of where we were in the process.

I feel that desperate when it comes to the people I love. I want to deliver some kind of relief, press fast forward, say magical words. When none of that proves possible, I flail. It’s what Parker characterized in the interview as being “invasive of suffering.”

I brought this up with a friend recently, and she said: “Maybe we can’t wash the feet of those we love the most. We’re too invested in their recovery.”

It was another stilling moment for me. She has been attending Al-Anon meetings. Her mom has been sober for eight hard-fought months. She’s been thinking a lot about not being “invasive of suffering.” How had I not noticed that the man who washed Parker’s feet each day was not a son or a brother, not a best friend or a wife? It was simply a friend.

This is not to let myself off the hook. I do want to learn how to wash the feet of those I love the most, or whatever the equivalent is for my people in my way, but perhaps it’s an approach best practiced with people we actually have a bit of distance from. It’s also a beautiful reminder of how important the loose ties of life really can be; the village may be better positioned to nurse us than our own flesh and blood at crucial moments.

It’s inevitable that we become attached to the recovery of people whose suffering directly affects us. No doubt the most evolved among us learn how to compartmentalize our own desires while sitting at the feet of those we love. I aspire to that. In the meantime, I’m going to be listening to life for the moments where I might “wash the feet” of people who are dear to me, but not of me. Where I might serve as a loving, non-attached source of comfort and unconditional love — the doula at the birth, not the partner.

Suffering is universal. It’s time I grew wiser about how to sit alongside it.

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