How To Respond To Suffering



By Lindsey Weishar

Recently, I’ve been struggling with a great deal of anxiety. Some of my worries have been little things really—apartment problems, feeling tired but wanting to be “productive,” fretting over something I said a week ago. Other worries have been about the state of the world today. In recent weeks, the world has acquired a few more scars: the attack on the Orlando night club, the shooting and killing of African American men and of police officers, and the attack on vacationers in Nice, France. And even since this writing, too many more accounts of violence. Our world is suffering, and this suffering affects us all. Listening to the breaking news about Nice a few weeks ago, I couldn’t help but shed tears as I drove home and listened to the story of this tragedy unfold in an all too familiar story about the deliberate destruction of our fellow human beings.

The question I keep asking myself is what can I do? How can I respond? The answer that I might turn to in smaller situations of individual pain is to try and “fix” the problem or to distract a friend from her aching heart. But what I am actually called to do is something much harder: to be with my friend and with her pain, to suffer with her. This doesn’t mean I can ever know exactly how she feels, but I can show compassion (the literal meaning of this word is “to suffer with”).

My response to the world’s suffering must also be one of compassion. I cannot erase the pain, nor can I say that I understand the suffering that thousands of people face as a result of tragedy, but I can perhaps bring a little light to the world through my actions. In interpersonal communication circles there is the concept of person centeredness, which focuses on the extent to which a person is turned toward those outside of herself. High person centeredness means listening and helping a person through pain by supporting them in finding their own solutions to their problems and facilitating their own healing. Medium and low person centeredness, in contrast, operate in the “fixing” or dismissive realms, and problems are often pushed aside instead of acknowledged.

My goal especially in these times of pain is not to collapse in on myself, as is sometimes my tendency. Instead, I plan to practice high person centeredness in the following ways:

  1. I will listen first. So often I want to talk. The worlds of social media and texting are based on my responses to others, and I am used to acknowledging the problems of others with similar stories about my own problems. But it is in listening to the people around me that I will truly come into contact with their whole person.

  2. I will really see people. So often I go through life blinded by my own worries. I could smile and return the check-out person’s kind “hi, how are you today?” with a smile of my own and an inquiry into how their day has been. When I actually follow through with this—making eye contact with the person before me—I am often happier to have done so. This pausing to greet another person says, “I see you. You matter to me.” I want to tell more people that.

  3. Instead of asking “how can I fix this?” I will ask “what can I do to help you through this?” People who practice high person centeredness want to help empower those around them. To the friend who is experiencing a high degree of stress at work, I can best help by asking what she can do to address this stress. This question communicates both that I care about my friend and that I believe in her ability to help herself through this problem. I can also ask her how I can be there to support her. She might suggest a phone call or a coffee date so she can talk through her problems. Among my circle of friends, I often hear that just being there for them is what brings them the most comfort.

  4. I will talk about the pain. A question that’s been on my heart for a few weeks now is how my friends are coping with the painful events of the past few weeks. As a society, we don’t like to talk about pain. By reaching out and seeing how my friends are doing, I hope to communicate that none of us is alone in suffering or in our response to suffering.

  5. I will keep praying. Though it seems like each day brings another story of suffering, I will work to remember that our dear God is so involved in these sufferings. His heart breaks with ours. Though to some, prayer may seem a passive way to cope with the world’s problems, it is really one of the ways we can be most actively involved in the suffering of others. To pray is to lift our brokenness and the brokenness of the world to God, to ask Him for the strength and serenity to be present to others when our own responses to pain threaten to curl us in on ourselves.     

Though these are small things, I believe this is how we start to address suffering worldwide. By telling people we see them, listening to their pain, and being willing to suffer with them, we start building up a culture of life. And the world gets a little less dark.