“Sherry is in process”.
As my classmates and I settled into our seats for our evening self-help class at a local shop, our instructor offered only this short phrase to provide us with some explanation for the loud wailing that was coming from the corner of the room. Seated on the floor, rocking back and forth, a young woman produced powerful sobs, seemingly oblivious to the activity occurring in the rest of the room.
New to this group, I had not yet met Sherry, nor was I familiar with the term “in process”. To me, she appeared to be suffering greatly. I did not know what sort of process would create a moment so intense to observe and apparently to endure. I would later learn the source of her pain; her beloved mother had just died suddenly and unexpectedly.
I spent the entire class period fixated on this woman and her misery. The ferocity of her screams frightened me. She sounded alternately enraged, anxious, and in despair. At times, her voice reached a piercing high that sounded almost gleeful. I had never witnessed anything like this physical expression of anguish. I was in awe, even a bit envious, of Sherry’s ability to allow the depths of her pain to be observed by others.
I was even more fascinated, though, by the behavior of everyone else in the room. No one even glanced over at that corner. Everyone automatically raised their voices to accommodate the crescendos of her howling, treating her cries like the minor nuisance of a lawnmower — something to be worked around rather than tended. After class, we all departed without a word to Sherry or to one another about the experience we had just shared.
This event reified something I learned long ago — that strong emotions, particularly those deemed to be negative, are to be marginalized, ignored even, until they disappear. The lesson for so many of us is that, like a toddler in the midst of a temper tantrum, when I express my pain, others around me know to pay no attention to it. This way of interacting with one another’s suffering is far from supportive; rather, it seems to me to be an attempt at behavior modification. When my children were toddlers, the popular advice for responding to tantrums was to ignore them, to continue on as though there were no toddler screaming at our feet. That guidance suggested that doing so would lead to the cessation of their outbursts. It often did eventually cause tantrums to end. However, rather than teaching those toddlers how to work with their own strong emotions, what this approach did was to show them that there was no place for such emotions at all. It communicated quite clearly that they were alone in their distress, unless they could express it eloquently with carefully chosen words and without any strong energy at all. So many of us grasped early on that we must hide our pain, perhaps even be ashamed of it. We also understood that we should help others to do the same by avoiding their expressions of suffering.
Our attempts to ignore others’ pain are not always so obvious. They can be quite subtle; indeed, they may even appear on the surface like support rather than the avoidance techniques they truly are.
I first learned about the dangers of bypassing another’s pain when my son was in second grade. As he settled into the backseat of the car after school one day, I noticed that he was much more quiet than usual. “What’s up, Buddy?” I asked. After pausing thoughtfully for a moment, he slowly began to speak, “David was really mean to me all day. He kept running away from me at recess, and he called me a mean word during reading time.” A response came quickly to my lips, “Well, Sweetie, David’s family is going through a really rough time right now. You see . . .” Fortunately, I glanced in the rearview mirror at that moment. What I saw was my young son’s face crumble with disappointment. He had entrusted me with something dear to him — his emotions; and I had attempted to bypass them. Immediately changing course, I said, “You know what, Buddy? None of that matters right now. I’m sorry David acted unkindly toward you. Tell me about it. How did that feel?”
In that moment, I chose to be with my son in his sadness rather than to use his experience to teach him a lesson or apply my knowledge to talk him out of feeling whatever he was feeling. He opened up and shared his sadness, after which he seemed so relieved. Merely listening, without instructing him or guiding him or analyzing him, had provided him with relief. When we simply witness another’s pain (or joy, for that matter), we give them an opportunity to put down some of their burden. The effect is that through sharing it with a loving, nonjudgmental observer they no longer have to hold the entirety of the experience inside themselves, nor must they feel embarrassment or shame about having emotions related to it. When we jump in with explanations and opinions, their experience still sits there inside them, now becoming buried under all these layers of thoughts and words. My approach to parenting changed drastically in that moment. I began to say, “That stinks. Tell me more,” in response to so many similar tales. I learned to refrain from sharing my opinion about my kids’ experiences, and eventually this led my brain to have fewer and fewer opinions and brilliant insights when they shared something with me — which created much more space for simply witnessing.
Later that day, as I was reflecting on that moment, I realized that not only had I learned to “support” others in this manner of analyzing their emotions or explaining the situation to them, this was also the approach I used on myself. An act of betrayal? That person hasn’t learned to love because she had an alcoholic father. Snide comments from a coworker? Perhaps that person is feeling the increasing stresses in our work environment. Rather than actually experiencing my emotions, I rushed to scrutinize them, to explain them away so that I did not have to actually feel them.
Looking back on that class so many years later, my heart still hurts for Sherry — both for her grief and for the ways each of us ignored it. As we sat in a self-help class, ostensibly learning how to support ourselves, we missed a beautiful opportunity to companion a fellow human who was in pain. Were we so focused on learning how to help ourselves that we could not see what is true — that how we support one another is how we support ourselves? I cannot return to that evening class that occurred so many years ago. I cannot sit with Sherry as she wails. But I can do it for the next person I meet who is in pain — even if that person is myself.