How to be with suffering
At times, I feel completely overwhelmed by the amount of suffering in the world. Whether that’s dealing with challenges in my own life, witnessing hard times among loved ones or clients, seeing the ongoing oppression of marginalised groups, hate crimes, war, or the destruction of our planet. I wake up with this feeling of heaviness in my body, not dissimilar to grief, that I can’t quite shake.
Some years ago when I was struggling with my mental health, I made a decision to stop reading the news first thing in the morning as I found that it was creating a lot of (additional) dysregulation in my nervous system. At that time, it was a price I couldn’t afford to pay in order to “stay current”.
Of course, it’s almost impossible nowadays to be in the world without hearing about a new crisis each day, if not through the news then through our social platforms. And with this, I am seeing increased division. Those who believe vs. those who don’t, those backing this side vs. that side, those calling on us to speak up vs. those who keep quiet. Our response to conflict and trauma is… more conflict. Why is that?
We are living in a world where most people are living in a state of overwhelm as their baseline. Our nervous systems haven't (yet?) adapted to the exponential growth of information we are exposed to, or to the types of perceived threats we now face. It may seem obvious that receiving some negative comments on Instagram is not as life-threatening as being chased by a tiger, and yet our autonomic nervous systems are constantly asking the question “Am I safe?” and creating physiological responses in the body before we can rationalise it. You might have noticed this when your heart starts racing and your palms get sweaty when someone says “We need to talk”!
It can be infuriating to see the inaction or ambivalence of others when we are suffering. “How can people have already forgotten about what’s happening in…?”. How can my colleagues be debating who should win a reality show when people are being displaced/killed/attacked?
I think that people do actually want to help.
I think it's very rarely a lack of caring, but rather a lack of capacity. When we are in a constant state of dysregulation we may not be equipped to engage with more stress and so we choose instead - often beneath our conscious awareness - a protective mode of mentally escaping, numbing out, or shutting down, OR we make desperate bids to be in control in some element of our lives.
It’s a rational response to see suffering and to want to take action. Whether that’s throwing money at an issue (if we can afford to), or making sure suffering doesn’t go unnoticed by taking to the streets or social platforms to protest or raise awareness of a cause. These can be important and impactful actions for those able to take them. And at times, I think we just become too paralysed by overwhelm to act.
For me, the truth is that I cannot avoid seeing suffering, and I don’t want to. What I struggle with more though is the feeling of helplessness, like there’s little I can do, or that I don’t have any way to control what’s happening to me or others. It’s the disempowerment that causes an increased sense of unsafety and disconnection.
So what can we do?
I think first and foremost we can acknowledge that most of us are experiencing too much stress day to day to be able to function at our best. We need to feel safe in order to be able to connect with others and yet we need connection in order to co-regulate and feel safe. It's a kind of messed up chicken and egg situation! Can you see how easy it is to get trapped in dysregulation?!
Secondly, we can acknowledge that we don’t all feel safe by default. Safety is a privilege. Our nervous system responses and their way of assessing the “Am I safe?” situation are largely impacted by our past experiences AND our place within power structures. We are not all equal.
I am wondering what it would be like if we chose to prioritise tending to our own nervous systems. To start by noticing when we are regulated or dysregulated. To understand what contributes to us feeling safe or unsafe, and to acknowledge that our thinking and actions can be impacted massively by whether or not we feel safe. To invest what capacity we do have in finding the things that help us to feel safe(r).
When we feel safe(r), we have more flexibility in terms of our emotional response. We see the bigger picture. We can be more receptive to others. We can seek understanding over victory. We are far better able to connect, find belonging, and ask for what we need. If power is having a choice over what happens to us, then the more mastery we have of our nervous system, the more empowered we can be.
AND what we learn along the way may help us to serve others without overwhelming ourselves. Rather than being the wounded and burnout martyr, we can be the grounded supporter giving from a resourced place.
What if the best way we can be in service to others right now is to sit with another being as a grounded presence in a chaotic world? To take the time to really see them for who they are vs. what they might represent to us? One of the things that can have a profound impact on a suffering human is to be witnessed - to be seen and heard. To know that we are not alone in this.
What if our role is to become a witness for them, to hear their story, and to support them in finding their voice again. To reconnect not only to the suffering but to the memory and potential of joy. Stories alone can ignite a desire to act.
There are many ways that we can act, but the intention needs to be there to move towards not away from each other.
What if the current-day heroes are those who have tended to their nervous systems so that they can respond to things and make decisions from a place of connection and stability, and support others to do the same?