Why we Need to Accept Pain and Suffering
Recognising that depression can be dealt with in a ‘paradoxical way’ may be why we in risk and safety struggle to understand it.
A close friend has recently started as a mentor in a program that supports women who have been victims of severe domestic violence, to work their way back into society. Part of the training for this role is the Accidental Counselor program.
My friend shared some of the details of the training and the thing that stood out clearly was that the role of the ‘counselor’ is not to fix people. If we do try to fix people she told me, we often unintentionally create more pain and suffering. The role of the counselor is to accept the other person’s pain and suffering, not to try to eradicate it. Listening and being present are the key things, my friend told me.
Pain and suffering are a normal part of what it means to be human. It is inevitable, essential and crucial in our maturing, growing and being. Pain and suffering are part of what is means to live, albeit not pleasant when we are in the midst of experiencing it. We should not seek to run from pain and suffering, instead we should listen to it and learn from it. In going one step further, we cannot experience true happiness and well-being if we don’t accept pain and suffering. The Buddhists have been onto this for years.
Challengingly in our modern world though, and in particularly in risk and safety, it is tempting to want to fix people when things are not quite running right. We can struggle to accept that pain and suffering are part of a normal life when we constantly hear messages focused on ‘fixing’, ‘helping’ and ‘preventing’. So why it is that humans find it difficult to cope with, and accept, pain and suffering?
This question is not an easy one to answer; however Kushner (2007) explores it when she poses;
"It may be that instead of giving us a friendly world that would never challenge us and therefore never make us strong, God gave us a world that would inevitably break our hearts, and compensated for that by planting in our souls the gift of resilience."
(Kushner 2007, p.55)
When one is in the midst of pain and suffering and experiencing all of the feelings and emotions that go with pain, it may be difficult to understand that experiencing the pain is necessary for learning, maturing and importantly as Kushner notes, developing resilience.
So if we do accept that pain and suffering are essential for ‘being’ as a human and developing resilience, how can we go about dealing with it?
To explore this, lets consider the pain and suffering of grief.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her helpful book On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss provides a framework for people to work through grief and grieving. While she has been able to simplify this process down to five key stages of “denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance” (Kubler-Ross 2014, p.7), each stage is not described as a step-by-step process. Instead, Kubler-Ross (2014, p.22) outlines that each stage may be difficult and it may not be sequential, rather it can jump in stages. Importantly she also recognises the paradoxical nature of pain;
“As tough as it is, depression can be dealt with in a paradoxical way. See it as a visitor, perhaps an unwelcome one, but one who is visiting whether you like it or not. Make a place for your guest. Invite your depression to pull up a chair with you in front of the fire, and sit with it, without looking for a way to escape. Allow the sadness and emptiness to cleanse you and help you explore your loss in its entirety. When you allow yourself to experience depression, it will leave as soon as it has served its purpose in your loss. As you grow stronger, it may return from time to time, but that is how grief works.”
(Kubler-Ross 2014, p.22)
Recognising that depression can be dealt with in a ‘paradoxical way’ may be why we in risk and safety struggle to understand it. This is grey and messy, and not an easy concept to get our heads around. This will be especially so if our focus is zero harm, the favoured religion of many in risk and safety. Zero Harm is the epitome of the lack of acceptance for pain and suffering.
Suggesting that people “experience depression”, and “allow the sadness and emptiness to cleanse you” is outlining a process that is not clear-cut and unequivocal. Instead, is it implying that at times, life through a period of grief may be disordered, confusing and challenging.
Can you imagine anyone working in the risk and safety industry suggesting that people should experience pain and suffering and allow sadness and emptiness to cleanse them? Not a chance, that’s when the ‘Crusaders’ quickly jump into save you. For Crusaders, pain and suffering is nothing but an evil menace that must be eradicated and eliminated. You can hear this all through the language of safety, especially those that espouse ‘zero’.
I wonder what lessons there are in this story for those of us who work in risk and safety? How do we go about practicing more ‘counselling’ and less ‘crusading’? What is it in our language and practices that suggests that we cannot handle pain and suffering? How can we better understand the paradoxical nature of risk and safety; that is how can ‘pain and suffering’ and ‘safety’ co-exist?
I wish my friend all the best in her new role as a mentor; in her listening, in her being and in her ‘meeting’ with the woman that she will support. She knows that the woman doesn’t need fixing; she will do that all by herself.