Must suffering be solitary?

By Joel Merchant

This story will become serious soon enough, so first, a lighter note. Picture this. Years ago, in growing dusk, I am walking a New York City sidewalk, my tall person’s legs taking long strides. Turned slightly toward friends, more involved in animated college student conversation than wary of my path, I walked full tilt into a metal lamp post. It was a shattering hit. My forward momentum stopped only after an arm and leg was draped around either side of the post. I crumpled straight down, losing consciousness. An unfamiliar, disconnected, observant part of me thought, “Oh. A ringing sound. The pole is hollow. That’s how a stringed instrument’s sound chamber works.”

Most of us are untrained for emergencies. Lacking experience, we’re unfamiliar and uncomfortable with tragedy – not others, not our own. It’s awkward when tragedy strikes a friend. We’re not sure how to be present. We keep our distance. We look on from a safe place. We read the paper: “Whew. What a relief this happened to someone else” (thinking, this time). We approach, confused by mixed feelings, perhaps guilt. “I cannot imagine….”…our voice trails off. It’s difficult to hide our hesitation that the person in pain could be us.

The journey through another person’s suffering is intimate. We look on, thinking that perhaps sympathy is appropriate, but helpless to express it. We imagine how we might feel in similar circumstances. Some fall into the trap of telling the person having the experience how she must feel. This doing so is less emotionally painful than asking “How are you doing?” That question crosses the psychological safety line, brings us closer to seeing, perhaps too clearly.

Having nothing to say provides little relief from the confusion and awkward silence that accompanies pain. A friend shares her experience. “Others consider that tragedy is private, that they are outsiders, not qualified to respond, especially since what you write or say is intimate. They listen to you, but fear their response would be (what?) judgmental? critical? Pain and sadness envelope a person who suffers a loss. Its protective function is to help us survive the experience. But it also isolates us because it is difficult for others to see us as we are. People are busily absorbed in their own lives, and don’t feel the pain. Once, we were the same. Now, we’re changed.”

In his book If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him!, therapist Sheldon Kopp writes: “Love is being open to experience the anguish of another person’s suffering… the willingness to live with the helpless knowing that we can do nothing to save the other from the pain.”

Time is important, not because “time heals” or “with time, you’ll get over it.” It is only as time passes that we can know if the tragedy will do us in, or if we survive. A friend reminded me, “If this doesn’t kill me, it’ll make me stronger.” We understand ourselves in new ways. We cannot be the same. The experience becomes part of the story we tell that defines our life.

Why do we hesitate to tell our stories? Do we fear projecting our suffering on to the listener? “Why would anyone be interested?” “Who’d want to talk about that?” “My story doesn’t compare with the trouble she’s had.” Tragedy’s traveling companion is a sense of isolation. Everyone has a story to tell, but they’re difficult to share. Tragedy yawns open before us, a chasm, with no apparent way around or over. Crossing requires the leap of faith. If we share our story, others will listen. Someone else cares. We feel isolated, but are not.

Eli Wiesel began his 1966 The Gates of the Forest with a tale later quoted by Kopp in his book about the pilgrimage of psychotherapy patients: “When Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov saw misfortune threatening…it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and misfortune averted. When his disciple, Magid of Mezritch, had occasion to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say, Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer.” Again, the miracle would be accomplished. Later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov, in order to save the people, would go into the forest and say, “I do not know how to light the fire. I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.” Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire. I do not know the prayer. I cannot find the place in the forest. All I can do is tell the story, and this must be sufficient.” And it was sufficient. God made man because He loves stories.

It was two years after my daughter’s death before my breathing returned to normal. Exhausted, in shock, psychologically confused, vision obscured, normal interaction impaired, I went about activity by rote. Friends, awkward, kept their distance. At times, I’d kept a busier than usual schedule, perhaps for the sense that there was something which continued to give life a sense of purpose. Some days I could barely function. The earlier story about walking along the New York sidewalk? The loss of my daughter is the experience of colliding with an immovable object.

Sharing my story is an idea that came only in its own good time, and still seems impossibly difficult. Time passed. I could talk about Ali without weeping. But I didn’t know where to start the story. I remember admitting to a high school teacher I was having trouble writing a paper. She said, “Just start at the beginning and write until you come to the end.” That was little help then or now. The ending is stark and abrupt. The beginning remains elusive.

Not long before her death, my daughter made me a dream catcher. People says its purpose is to allow pleasant dreams through and stop unpleasant ones. I remember an early afternoon, a breeze through the windows, sunlight through leaves of the tree spread about in speckled soft arrangements on the floor and walls. I sat, eyes unfocused, watching the dream catcher, as if I expected to see her fingers tying knots around the last feathers and beads. The experience is like hearing a plane on its landing path descent into Honolulu, and saying aloud to my daughter (who has been away long enough), “I’ll bet you’re not on that one, either.”

Her dream catcher hangs in front of an louvered closet door. Top and bottom shelves look like I’m determined to see how much they’ll hold before collapsing. The accumulation of papers, letters, pictures, books, file folders, old slides, boxes are a mix of a white elephant sale, a flea market, a not-quite-antiques auction. Of course, as each item joined the collection, it was indispensably meaningful.

That afternoon, I remembered. Wedged among these memories were treasures – copies of letters, through the years, my daughter and I exchanged. I thought: perhaps I can use these letters to tell my story. So it began. I took my letters from the shelves, read them, alternately laughing, weeping, wondering, remarking at the events and emotions in each letter. Randomly, I chose one, then another, and the next. I began to read and make slight edits in the letters. The process was manageable, satisfying, and spared me the pressure of a deadline. There’s a happy-sad quality to sharing the correspondence with others. The letters elicit responses without difficulty. Emotions and experiences behind each exchange, laughter about an event remembered, are still “like yesterday.” But inescapably, the letters are a solemn reminder. These events, this life, is unrepeatable. My daughter is no longer living. The laughter I hear is in my head, not from her in the next room or over the telephone.

After rewriting each letter, I’d wonder the story’s beginnings. Every few letters resulted in changes in the introduction. It doesn’t seem possible, no matter how easy my high school teacher suggested it was, “just to begin at the beginning.” I suppose one reason was because the end of her life brought an emotional collapse. I don’t expect that to change soon. Time has passed. It’s possible to survive. But the collision with the immovable object occurred, and the hollow metal pole still vibrates.

Joel Merchant is an educator, business consultant, and essayist. He is currently working on, from which it is possible to write to him.

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