“What is most personal and unique in each one of us is probably the very element which would, if it were shared or expressed, speak most deeply to others.“Carl Rogers, On Becoming a Person
Suffering is a very personal experience. Nobody else can feel our suffering. It’s easy to believe our suffering is special, that nobody else ever experienced this particular suffering, and that nobody can really understand it. We become trapped in our own experience of suffering, and we feel very alone. Our suffering is a wall.
But suffering, of every flavor and variety and intensity, is a universal experience. If we are open to the suffering of others, if we have the privilege of witnessing how much others are suffering, and if we have the presence of mind to recognize their suffering as real, we realize that suffering is a feature of our shared humanity. When this happens, our very suffering becomes a reminder that we are human, and helps us understand others and love them more. Our very suffering helps us remember that we are not alone, that we have not been singled out to be brutalized by the universe; that our experience of suffering is a part of being alive, just as it is for others. And later, when we are suffering less and have more presence of mind, it can help us remember that others are suffering just as much as we sometimes do. Our suffering becomes a bridge.
When I was 19 and serving in the Israeli military, I was hitchhiking back home from base. I had been thinking about my sister, who was badly hurt in a car crash a few years prior, and had suffered significant brain injuries. At the time, I thought our family’s tragedy was unique, that my personal burden was special. I believed nobody else could understand what it’s like to go through such an ordeal, and to prepare for a lifetime of caring for my sister. A man stopped and waved me over to enter his car. As we drove, he told me about his young son, who had been very sick for a long time. As he pulled over to let me out of the car, he said something that has stayed with me ever since: We all have our burdens.
I was humbled. The man never asked me about myself; he clearly needed to talk, clearly relished the opportunity to process his anguish. But he gave me something invaluable during that car ride. He gave me perspective. During our time together, I learned that, even though the specific cause of my suffering may be unique, the experience of suffering is universal. I was starting to understand that our encounters with the rough edges of life, and our reactions to those encounters, are as universal as our reaction to the smell of cinnamon.
Many of us live in a culture that encourages us to pretend we’re doing well. There is only one correct answer to “How are you?” and people aren’t supposed to cry in public places. Looking around us, we see only people who appear to be fine, thank you. And so, when we are not doing well, it’s easy to believe we are the only ones. On an intellectual level, we may remember it’s unlikely everybody else is fine while we alone suffer; but the mind believes what the eyes see, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that everybody else must only be dealing with pretty minor stuff, compared to us. And so we feel alone. And we feel uniquely screwed.
It helps to remember everyone suffers very frequently. It can help us feel better, and it can help us have more compassion for others. I like to start meetings with a simple visual check-in. I say something like: Please hold out your hand and use your thumb to show how your day is. Best day ever? Stick your thumb straight up. Horrible day? Thumb straight down. Somewhere in the middle? You know what to do. You don’t have to talk about it. Just keep your hand out and look around, see how everyone else is doing. Remember that everyone here is having a day, just like you are. And see if there’s anyone you’d like to try and be extra gentle with today.
I close my eyes and dip into myself to see how I’m doing, then hold out my thumb and open my eyes to see everyone else’s. The whole thing takes 30 seconds. It helps us remember that we are all people, and it brings a little empathy into the meeting. We get to pause and check in with ourselves for a bit. We get to know others a little. We see others, and we feel seen. We are building bridges.