By in Spirituality

Pain, Suffering, and 'Help' from the Not So Helpful

An acquaintance of mine is a very sweet lady who works on her spiritual development regularly and tries to walk lightly on the Earth. She commented today that it's really tough to relate to the suffering of another human being without being overwhelmed by it. I know that feeling well! I also know that it's often the root of misguided attempts to “heal” someone when the healer has nothing more than old wives' tales to rely on, or to somehow “fix” the person and make them into an improved individual who won't have these problems.

In other words, most attempts at “helping” a person who is suffering are really grounded in ensuring the comfort of the helper, rather than in doing anything that will actually benefit the person who is suffering.

The Tiresome “Helper”

Another woman, whom I don't know, was all for singing the praises of compassion. She tried to advise my friend to allow herself to be overwhelmed, but then to take a break for herself and return t the caring. Her reaction made me think of that one friend we all have who rushes in at the first sign of drama, bustling about, talking too loudly, and stirring everyone up.

You know her: she's the one who feeds on other people's misfortune because it lets her feel superior – um, useful – and she delights in being at the center of the action. It allows her to take control of the situation so she can chastise any other visitors for a million imagined infractions, and speak for the injured party as if he isn't even in the room.

It can be oh so draining, to allow oneself to be “taken care of” by such a tiresome busybody! It can take days to rest up before another visit is possible – and one generally hopes the cure will come before another visit!

Mistaking Obsession for Compassion

There is a Buddhist sutta, called “The Arrow,” that talks about how an uninstructed individual can be obsessed with the feeling of physical pain, and this creates an emotional or mental pain that causes him to suffer. It may seem odd to us that anyone would be obsessed with pain or desire to hold onto it but if you think about it, that's what we tend to do when something really overwhelms us.

Fear causes us to panic, but instead of letting go of the bad thing we hold on tighter. It's part of the process of figuring out what to do about the pain. Something deep inside us tells us not to let go until we've identified the source of the pain, which is actually smart because there may be a very real reason not to set the source of our pain free again – we don't want to end up with yet another injury, after all!

The trained mind acknowledges the pain, but doesn't struggle with it. Rather than holding on tightly, it seeks to find the source of the pain, to identify it and determine whether there is a way to escape it. Instead of compounding physical pain with mental anguish, the trained mind focuses on finding a solution, and is able to withdraw away from the pain.

But this healthy, mature reaction – from either the injured party or a friend who has come by to be of assistance – is often met with disdain on the part of the busybody and those who believe her to be a selfless and compassionate person. The problem is that these people don't recognize that they really aren't helping. In fact they may be hurting the person they want to heal, because all their bustling about an fussing inflicts mental suffering on the very person they set out to serve.

When we try to “fix” or “cure” someone, to remove their pain without being asked, it is our own comfort we seek, not the other's. We don't know how to just spend time with someone who is sick, without trying to prescribe them some folk remedy or refer them to our doctor. We don't know how to acknowledge the other person's pain or misfortune without a struggle. So we take the pain into ourselves and hold fast to it, letting it overwhelm us. We put our energy into trying to escape a pain that was never ours to begin with, and in so doing we are actingas if the other person's feelings don't matter.

Being a Witness to Pain

Very often when someone is going through a rough time, what she really needs is just for someone to acknowledge her experience. She may need to talk about her pain, or perhaps to just give voice to what has happened – an illness, a financial or emotional loss, bad news that means an inevitable change in her life. Sometimes, when a person is deeply grieving or when an illness has progressed to its final stages, it isn't even about talking. That person may just need someone to be with her, to witness her pain, to be an anchor to some other part of reality that proves she hasn't lost her sanity to the suffering.

But to be that witness, we must learn to withdraw from the pain and the person who feels it. We can't help the person find solid ground again if we're too busy stirring up a ruckus. And we can't act as witnesses if we insert ourselves into the action. We must remain grounded, we must be as inert as possible. We must resist the urge to “fix” things, whether with chicken soup that was never desired, or with suggestions for how the other can create a reality more pleasing to us.

I left the conversation when the woman lost the ability to express herself in coherent sentences, but I had tuned her out as soon as it become clear she held my detachment in contempt. She wasn't going to listen to anyone who wasn't there to stoke her fires or fan their flames. Anyone who wasn't at least paying her lip service was a threat, and she'd be as rude as possible in an attempt to discredit that person. It only made her look more pitiful.

The word compassion has two parts: com- , meaning “with” and passion from the Latin pati "to suffer." To have compassion is not to take away another's pain or to try to relieve him of it. Rather it is the act of living the pain with him. It is a deeply intimate sharing in which we seek nothing more than to be present and to acknowledge what the other person is dealing with. Anything more is a denial of the other person's autonomy, a theft of his right to self-determination. Any attempt to fix or cure is manipulation. It is worse than no help at all.

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scheng1 wrote on June 23, 2015, 2:18 AM

I think those who just want others to listen to their woes are energy vampires. They are not interested in solutions and they do not care for anyone other than themselves.

MegL wrote on June 23, 2015, 3:50 AM

This is a very important post. It is vital not to try and offer a solution and you have made a very valid point about trying to alleviate our OWN discomfort. Listening is a very hard skill to learn for some of us.

Nar2Reviews wrote on June 23, 2015, 10:04 AM

The thing is, being spiritual is individual and you can control the amount of time you give to others as well as allow yourself the amount of info you receive to control.

CoralLevang wrote on June 27, 2015, 3:11 PM

I have read this through once, Ruby3881 , and I have bookmarked the Sutta to read later.

Much to consider. Mind-provoking. I love it.

Last Edited: June 27, 2015, 3:11 PM

Ruby3881 wrote on June 29, 2015, 8:17 PM

The problem wasn't the person who wanted to share - whom I later discovered is dealing with terminal cancer in the extended family. It was the know-it-all who couldn't stand that we all didn't share her views on the subject.

Ruby3881 wrote on June 29, 2015, 8:19 PM

I think it is a difficult skill for all of us to develop, Meg!

Ruby3881 wrote on June 29, 2015, 8:29 PM

Yes, it is really about mundane life mostly. Feeding, bathing, helping someone to the toilet. Even just putting on the radio or the TV. And somehow filling up all the empty hours... The loss of autonomy and activity are really tough for many people.

And when it gets to the very end, often it's just about hand holding and being present. Just not leaving the person alone....

I spoke to my friend again last night. She and her family are going to spend time with their relative this week. We spoke a lot about how she feels and what he needs from her. I think she is moving closer to finding closure. It's tough, because there are kids involved. But I hope they will al find peace.

Ruby3881 wrote on June 29, 2015, 8:41 PM

I think most people mistakenly believe we are either on or off, when i comes to listening. I don't think they realize we can say yes, but with limits.

Ruby3881 wrote on June 29, 2015, 9:57 PM

You always make me smile, dear Coral! I hope you like the Sutta emoticon :smile:

msiduri wrote on June 30, 2015, 11:53 AM

Some months ago, I helped a friend care for her dying stepfather. The last thing he asked to eat was a coke float. His daughter, my friend's step-sister said, "He can have whatever he wants." By that time, of course, he could handle no more than a mouthful of it. But it was more important that the family be together, talk. They went through old pictures. It was quiet. I don't say he didn't suffer, but his body just shut down little bit by little bit. At this point, he couldn't get out of the bed. He lost the ability to talk. It was matter of days. But he was never alone.

apcarl wrote on July 1, 2015, 9:54 PM

The point you mad is vital. I believe if we care for those in need we can learn things about ourselfs.