Why I Can’t Stand To See You Suffer

Several weeks ago, I was leaving Grand Central Terminal.  As I was going up a very long staircase, a young Asian woman was descending in the opposite direction on the escalator. Talking on her cell phone, I noticed a single tear slowly trickling down her cheek.

My initial inclination was to turn around and walk down the 40 steps or so to ask her if she was ok – her pain was that palpable. Thinking twice, I thought better of being some stranger chasing her down to intrude into her personal affairs.  Yet, something about the suffering of this tear-inducing phone call haunts me a little still.

When we see suffering, we are moved to want to end it. Research suggests one reason why is that when we see someone in pain, it activates the same regions of our brain that fire up when we experience pain ourselves.

In fact, the more acutely we feel pain ourselves, the more acutely we will be able to feel the pain of others.

This reciprocal relationship shows both the capacity and limitations of our empathy.

Naturally, we hope to minimize pain and suffering in our own lives. But does this also mean that we look to minimize our exposure to the pain and suffering of others?

Ask yourself this: In the last month, what have you done to end someone’s suffering and what have you done to avoid someone’s suffering?

One of my favorite quotes is from Helen Keller.

“Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.”  

It is in many ways a hopeful reminder of our collective resiliency.

Yet perhaps ironically, Keller also wants us to hear that before the overcoming can happen, we must be willing to see the suffering. Despite how painful that might be.

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