Sunday, December 28, 2008

Personal Suffering and the Experience of Compassion

Compassion for those who are suffering is a very human emotion which, when filtered through the lens of one's own suffering, can be honed and developed into a powerful tool of perception and empathy. I have found that my work as a nurse has been directly informed by my ability to empathize with the suffering of others, and my own personal challenges do indeed increase my level of compassion for those with whom I come into contact.

Grief, for example, is a universal human emotional experience common to anyone who has suffered a significant loss, and the nature of that loss is not necessarily a determining factor vis-a-vis the severity, breadth and depth of the suffering that thereby ensues. The loss of a job, a career, a pet, a loved one, a way of life, one's independence, a home, a long cherished but unattainable goal---these are all losses which can trigger grief, and the experience of grief can be equally acute despite the source of the actual loss. In fact, some individuals who lose a job and are thrown into unemployment can sometimes experience more prolonged and significant grief than an individual who has lost a cherished family member. Grief is universal, and every person's experience of grief is unique and potentially life-altering.

Physical pain is yet another area in which suffering can be prolonged and debilitating. Living with chronic pain myself, I experience mild to severe physical discomfort every day, and my ability to concentrate, sleep, socialize and perform my daily activities is often impacted by my level of pain. In fact, I am writing this blog post at three o'clock in the morning, specifically because I was too uncomfortable to sleep. Ask me about pain and its negative consequences, and I can enumerate them for you without a second thought.

Emotional pain is a form of suffering which inflicts itself on almost every human being at some point in their lives. Studies have demonstrated that there are certain individuals who have a natural emotional resilience that enables them to recover from emotional set-backs and negative experiences relatively quickly. These individuals apparently experience few---if any---long-term effects of suffering or trauma, and there is evidence that an actual "resilience gene" bestows such recuperative powers on a percentage of humans. For those who live with chronic mental illness or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, these ultra-resilient individuals must seem somewhat unreal and perhaps untouchable by the woes of existence, but they are simply living in a certain place on the continuum of suffering. We all must indeed embrace our own place on that continuum, forever striving for our own unique brand of wholeness and recovery.

I have lived with major depression throughout my life, perhaps since early childhood. I also experienced Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in late 2001 following the murder of a close friend, and a series of losses subsequent to that very significant loss have been a major challenge for me on a spiritual and emotional level. Coupling these acute losses---and the accompanying grieving process---with chronic pain and several other irksome illnesses, life has indeed challenged me in mid-life (I turned 44 this past summer).

As a nurse, my personal experience of suffering is intrinsic to, and inseparable from, my ability to relate to others' distress. As a hospice nurse, when I enter the home of a family facing the death of a beloved family member, I bring my own experiences of loss with me. Visiting with a patient suffering from chronic major depression, I see myself in that individual, and I am filled with compassion.

At times, my own life experiences negatively color my perception of another's suffering, and I work with my mind and heart to not allow my biases or judgments to diminish my ability to be present for that individual. We are all human, and we can use our own life experience in such a way as to enhance our powers of empathy and compassion, but we can also judge others if their reaction or perceived ability to recover from a similar experience is different from ours. It is natural to form judgments about other human beings and how they live their lives, but when we are faced with the suffering of another, it is important to consistently remind ourselves that each being faces their own set of life challenges filtered through their own experience, memories, relationships, and unique genetic make-up. One person's ultimate trauma can be another person's very manageable life experience, and we must remember that uniqueness when we are face to face with a suffering being.

The Dalai Lama frequently reminds us that suffering and compassion are intrinsic parts of the human condition. I believe that when we can use our own suffering as a vehicle for enhancing our personal ability to be compassionate, we are truly practicing an enlightened form of love.

Even as I write, there are Palestinians and Israelis mourning the loss of innocent lives amidst political conflict and armed struggle. Mothers in Baghdad grieve their murdered children, families await news of a dying patriarch, a home burns to the ground, a beloved dog is diagnosed with cancer, or the sole provider for a family of six receives an unexpected pink slip from her employer of thirty years. Suffering and loss are everywhere, every day. How do we confront our own losses? How do we assuage the suffering of others?

It is often said that there are two sure things in life: death and taxes. This may be a pithy and popular statement, but I feel more strongly that, beyond death, there are three more things of which we can be absolutely certain, and they are suffering, compassion, and love. We mostly all pay taxes, and while some see that as an imposition, many of us will agree that it is simply a necessary rent that we pay for living in human society. However, we are all capable of love, we all suffer at some point in our lives, and we all can manifest compassion. Luckily, opportunities present themselves daily for developing and futhering our powers of compassion and love, and using our own experiences of suffering to amplify our abilities to show compassion for others who are suffering is a laudable and infinitely worthwhile pursuit.

We each owe society---and all sentient beings---our compassionate attention, and when we can magnify our compassion for others through our own experience of suffering, we are truly giving back in a way that is beyond measure. As Robert Fripp once said:

"May my living honor my parents;
May my living repay the debt of my existence."
Post a Comment