"The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing... not healing, not curing... that is a friend who cares."
Nouwen's words inspire today's reflection. They came to mind not long ago while speaking with a woman whose husband had recently suicided. The temptation is always there, when in the presence of suffering, to offer something tangible - knowledge, consolation, a cure. We recoil from pain, including the pain of others, and find subtle ways to defend against it. We try to delude ourselves that we are not helpless, that we can change things. But such ‘helpfulness’ merely serves us and our fears while denying the other what they most need from us. It is hard to stand there, empty-handed, and simply pay attention to the other in their suffering. However attention, defined by Iris Murdoch as “a just and loving gaze”, can be as Nouwen suggests the other’s greatest need and our best gift. Words and deeds may pale by comparison.
Murdoch's concept of attention was inspired by another philosopher, Simone Weil. Weil wrote, “At the bottom of the heart of every human being, from earliest infancy until the tomb, there is something that goes on indomitably expecting, in the teeth of all experience of all crimes committed, suffered, and witnessed, that good and not evil will be done to him. It is this above all that is sacred in every human being.” The core of suffering is the experience of the absence of goodness. It is the negation of myself and others as valuable. It is this absence, or denial, or violation of the need for “good and not evil”, which is the greatest source of the pain. (I am reminded of a woman who had left an abusive marriage and who said to me, "I wish he had just hit me." She meant that she felt it was his devaluing words which did her the most damage.)
Freud’s Law: those who cannot represent their suffering to themselves are bound to repeat it. When we cannot adequately hold our suffering – bear with it, perhaps transform it – then we pass it on to others. By a mechanical reactivity of the soul we want to replicate in them our pain, as though this will diminish it in us. Mostly this action is instinctive and unreflective. Weil wrote in her notebooks, “Human mechanics. Whoever suffers tries to communicate his suffering (either by ill-treating someone or calling forth their pity) in order to reduce it, and he really does reduce it in this way. In the case of a man in the uttermost depths, whom no one pities, who is without power to ill-treat anyone (if he has no child or being who loves him), the suffering remains within and poisons him.”
The question must be asked: can we do things differently? How?
Weil speaks of “communicating” suffering, and suggests that passing it on is not the only option. She refers to the another possibility: calling forth pity. A person communicates (says, shows) their suffering to another, and the other attends. Such attention takes the form of a loving, just, truthful gaze. If the one who suffers is able to experience that gaze (they may not) then their experience of suffering is changed in some important way. An aspect of it undergoes a transformation. When Christina Noble (who went on famously to work with homeless children in Vietnam) was a teenager living on the streets of Dublin, she was raped one night by two men. After they threw her back onto the street she “was struck by the horrible realization that there was nobody for me to go to. I needed just one person who would not see me as dust, or barely more than an animal.”
The loving attention of another is the most vital ingredient in the salve that heals our wounds. It tells us that the void within us is not an absolute truth. It is not true that we are dust. For such attention reveals that the pain of the void has the nature of a wound; it is a wound because it is a violation. What is violated is one's value. In the light of the right kind of attention we see ourselves and others, in some basic sense, as unconditionally valuable. Fully deserving of love. That is the final truth, if only we have eyes to see it. Often we can only see something in the light of another's gaze.
Weil uses the word “sacred” but I reach for secular language and so speak of being ‘unconditionally valuable.’ Unconditionality enters because anybody who can truly see and understand the heart of the person who cries ‘why am I being hurt?’ when (to reverse Weil’s words) evil and not good is being done to them, will find that they must do certain things and cannot do others. Could you walk past this abused teenager tossed onto the Dublin street? It would be impossible for somebody who really saw. This is what some philosophers refer to as ‘ethical impossibility.’ It is only to the degree that we fail in attention that we are capable of doing nothing or, indeed, of inflicting the wound.
It is not only the experience of another's attention which a person needs. The philosopher Raimond Gaita wrote: "People have often asked me how I survived my childhood reasonably sane. Some believe they know the answer. They think it was because my father and Hora loved me deeply and that I never doubted it. That is an important part of the answer, to be sure, but there is another part that is just as important. The fact that I came to see the world in the light that my father's goodness cast upon it prevented the pain of my childhood from becoming bitterness. It is bitterness rather than pain that corrodes the soul, deforms personality and character, and tempts us to misanthropy. My father's goodness enabled me to love my mother without shame or serious resentment. To be enabled to love is as important as to be loved, a fact that we must constantly hold before our minds when we deal with children who have deep psychological and spiritual wounds." We are changed by our capacity to give just, loving attention.
For example, recently I was full of anxiety for days on end over a financial issue. Then a friend with whom I had been having difficulties had a cancer scare. Despite having been angry with them I reassured my friend that they would not be alone, that I would take care of them if needed. Afterwards I reflected that I might lose my savings through such an ordeal and that I might also, after the way this person had treated me, suffer misunderstanding and criticism from others. So I would be in a much worse situation than the threat about which I had been anxious all week. But it did not matter. For I saw all these possibilities, but my attention to the deep fear in my friend, and the suffering they might have to undergo, and my resolution there and then to stand by them, meant that my anxieties for myself dissolved. I could certainly bear with such struggle, I felt. I was moved by a different energy than my previous self-absorbed anxiety. I was re-oriented. In Iris Murdoch’s words, such moments are examples that “love is the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is true.” Some people feel that the world is full of selfishness, but what I am describing here is an everyday event between people who care for one another. The kind of attention that we give to others transforms our inner-life and the way we are with each other.
I began this reflection with reference to a client whose husband had suicided. I work with a lot of people in that situation, and am often asked how I bear with such heart-rending work. Of course I am not the one going through the loss, and really I am a million miles removed from their pain. But the truth is that it is very, very hard at times. I am often, as I was with this woman, greatly pained by the suffering I witness. Because clients in general often that they are depressed by the suffering they see in the world, I know that I am hardly alone in this. What gives me the energy to sit with such pain is, through witnessing the love that shows itself in those who are bereaved, entering into what it reveals about others and life. Sometimes the one who suicided got to that place through a narcissistic way of being. (Of course, there is no single personality type involved in suicide.) In such situations, as I hear my client’s story sometimes I cannot help but experience negative feelings toward the one who died. But as we speak further, I begin to see them in a different light: in the light of the love that this person sitting before me has for them. Then, regardless of their shoddy actions or behaviour, I come to see them as valuable in a way which cannot be erased by their own deeds. Unconditionally valuable. To witness this is to exist in a very different world to the one that seems bereft of value and goodness, the world of nihilism, or narcissism, or neoliberalism such as I often write about. When we attend to others in the right kind of spirit our inner-life is transformed, as is our way of being with others. The world we inhabit becomes different, coloured by values which are the contrary of despair, and which despite their fragile place in our lives are unconditional. We are nourished and changed by the attention we give, through what we let in which nourishes us. And it is our greatest gift to others.
Author: Matthew Bishop
My name is Matthew Bishop. I am a counsellor, with a background in philosophy. I have spent years exploring how philosophy enters into therapy, both theoretically and practically. One of my big influences is existential therapy. Although uploaded here recently, these are reflections written at different times over the last ten years.