Here I sit, laptop out, earbuds in, enjoying a bold cup of Ethiopian dark roast in a small downtown coffee shop. It is a brisk (like -40 type of brisk) Saturday afternoon in February, and I have spent the better part of two hours trying to disguise the tears welling in my eyes as I read over the incredible notes, comments and messages that flooded in during my fundraising, surgery and recovery from a broken neck.
Suffering is quite the paradox. On one hand, it is an intensely personal journey that we must each navigate in our own way. On the other, we cannot endure suffering alone – the results of isolated suffering can be catastrophic. We need each other, we need people – and we need them most desperately in the longest, muckiest miles of the marathon.
We need people that are not only cheering for us at the finish line, but ones that are willing to run the race alongside us. The other side of this truth is that many times we will need to BE this person for someone else.
Out of my own very real suffering, and very real encouragements from incredible, real, people - here are 3 dignifying, uplifting ways you can respond to the suffering of others who count you in their community of supporters:
1. Affirmation Over Information
The starting point for ANY response to another person's suffering should be affirmation. Affirmation is one of the most powerful, dignifying gifts you can give someone and it is the launching point for truly positive, encouraging interaction. Defined, this term simply means the assertion that something exists or is true. It is giving validity to what someone else is experiencing, and that is worth more than any other sentiment you can offer.
Unfortunately our most common natural response typically starts with an “I understand...” or “I've experienced something similar...”. Humbly, I would challenge you to take one step back, gently remove yourself and simply affirm their experience. The reality is that none of us can truly understand exactly what someone else is experiencing. Antonyms of affirmation are denial, nullification and veto – and while none of us are seeking to “nullify” someone's expression of hardship, starting without affirming someone is taking steps exactly in that direction.
2. Proud Over Pride
I was told I would never be able to touch my chin to my chest because of all the implants in my neck. During motivational speeches I often demonstrate my hard fought ability to do just that. If it's a stiffer day, I sometimes fail but people always holler and applaud and I jokingly point out how ridiculous it is to receive applause for such a trivial demonstration. And yet, it feels amazing because people are proud of me for what is in all honesty a huge victory in my personal battle.
Funny, the marked difference between the words Proud and Pride. Pride is quite quickly associated with self. It implies an attitude of arrogance and superiority. The term Proud however, is more rapidly correlated to others. It is often meant to bestow honor on someone else. One of the most brilliant ways to encourage someone who is suffering is to verbalize how proud you are of their battle! We don't share our hardships with people just to garner sympathy. The deeper need in sharing is to have our personal battle acknowledged, even celebrated.
I must confess my wife has been instrumental in teaching me this. Knowing that even in defeat, my battle each day makes her proud, was and continues to be jet fuel for my ability to recover and be resilient in my journey.
3. Actions Over Words
Very early on in my work with young people, and again in my extended work with others that are suffering, I learned that empty words beget hollow encouragement. Never was this more clear than on the day when I had to suspend a troublesome young man from our inner city fitness program. As he was walking out of the gym to serve his suspension, I impulsively used those fateful, empty words, “If there is anything I can do for you, let me know” His response - What the **** does that mean.
He was right. It meant nothing. He was still suspended and I had in no way indicated a plan to meet him on his own turf in the coming week. As I reflected I realized I had expressed this sentiment on countless occasions, to address a whole host of concerns, and yet I had rarely if ever followed through on it. Empathy most often refers to our ability to feel what someone is feeling. While that is a wonderful thing, it does not complete the transaction of support. Compassion takes it a step further by implying that out of that understanding we have an actual desire to help alleviate the issue. And then we are faced with the ultimate decision to act. When our empathy moves us to compassion, and compassion to action, it is a wonderful thing.
Affirm others in their pain, share how proud you are of their battle, and radiate compassion with your words and most crucially, your actions. Tweak your response to suffering in these small ways and see how you can inspire resilience in your community, family and friends.