Now that there are two horrific wars raging in our world, it becomes harder and harder to pay attention to the news and to take in the scope of the death and destruction in the Middle East and Ukraine. It’s normal not to want to know about the innocents being killed, especially the children, and the plight of people who have no way to escape the devastation of their homes and neighborhoods. We ask ourselves, “What good does it do for me to confront this awful reality? There’s nothing I can do to stop it…”
If this is troubling you, I want to share with you the experience of being proximate to suffering and how, if you have the space and the grace to allow yourself to feel deeply, you can transform the pain and become a more compassionate human being in service to humankind.
The phrase “being proximate to suffering” comes from author and activist Bryan Stevenson who says: When you get proximate to the excluded and the disfavored, you learn things that you need to understand if we’re going to change the world. Our understanding of how we change things comes in proximity to inequality, to injustice.
This is something I have written about in depth in my book Living a Committed Life. In my decades of working as a social activist, I was up close and personal with human suffering, particularly of women. They included survivors of famines who lost all of their children and victims of unspeakable acts of sexual assault and torture. I sat in Truth and Reconciliation “courts,” and listened to families whose children had been raped and killed.
Being present to these horrific experiences was actually a great gift in my life. I realized I could not insulate myself from the pain of the world. If I wanted to be of service, to be an agent of healing, I needed to be a steadfast witness. I needed to allow my heart to be broken – to be broken open. As my dear friend Reverend Deborah Johnson says, “You can’t heal what you can’t feel.”
We may feel we have no way to serve the victims of war and the other atrocities, but we can open our hearts to the oppression and suffering that is right around us – perhaps even in our own lives and among those close to us. Suffering knows no boundaries of privilege. It is not difficult to find where your empathy and compassion can be of service – where simply being present to someone else’s pain is a gift beyond measure.
Being proximate to suffering includes being present to your own suffering as well. Tending to others is not meant to be an escape from the pain of your own life. Rather, service is an opportunity to transform your own hurt into growth and development, to deepen your own compassion for yourself. It requires you to open yourself up to what has been unacknowledged, stuffed away, and bring it into the light. To forgive ourselves is what allows us to heal, and healing ourselves allows us to serve and witness the healing of others – be they our friends and neighbors or people halfway around the world.
Your heart is big enough to hold it all.