Is This Compassion?
I’m trying a new approach to the pain and suffering around me. It may be working.
My go-to approach to crisis has always been to rely on my most rational sensibilities. Observe the symptoms, identify the problem, come up with a solution, and execute. In some ways, particularly in situations where another human being is involved, this approach has allowed me to insulate myself from the actual pain and suffering, while still being a part of the “solution.”
But while this approach may have functioned back when I worked in an operating room and encountered real tragedy on a daily basis (I was premed in college and got a job as an anesthesia technician), it isn’t working today. Like many of you, I’m trying to process a lot of people’s suffering at the same time. I’m contending with multiple family illnesses, friends dying, students and colleagues in crisis, and a bigger world of readers, listeners, and perfect strangers who are confused, terrified, and traumatized by everything going on.
I spent the first couple of years of the pandemic relying on my tried and true strategy of listening, empathizing, and responding to people’s suffering—but doing so from a removed position. I erected some sensible boundaries for self-preservation, or maybe insulation, from everyone else’s pain. Shit, I have enough pain and frustration, myself.
But I’ve found this approach actually creates a whole lot of residue. I leave the interaction, but carry an echo of the trauma and doubt about my own response for hours or days later. I go to bed at night with the faces and problems and winces of the anguished still racing through my head. And most of all, I feel plagued by the incompleteness of my compassion, my privileged status as a basically healthy person with work, friends, and a modicum of security. It is as if holding back something in the moment of interacting with people — whether in real life, Zoom, or even an email—generates a rebound effect later on.
Instead of girding myself for interactions with those in great pain, I do the opposite.
So I’ve been trying something else. Instead of girding myself for interactions with those in great pain, I do the opposite. I breathe…